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An attempt to understand what we have done to ourselves

January 25, 2014 at 5:49 am

It is important for us to know what others scheme for our revolutions, and we should not be surprised if they attempt to hijack or abort them. But what is more important is to know what we have done to ourselves, because it is truly strange and surprising.

From the constitutional declaration issued on 25th September, we now understand that we have to wait for more than a year for power to be transferred to civilians in Egypt, unless something else unexpected happens necessitating further postponement. There is no guarantee that such a situation will not arise. What we hoped and waited for was supposed to be completed this year. According to agreements reached during the meetings of the Constitutional Review Committee, we should have had public elections in June. The elected representatives would then have chosen members of the constituent assembly charged with writing the new constitution within six months, opening the door for Presidential elections before the end of the year.

In fairness, the above-mentioned committee was asked to amend 6 articles of the 1971 constitution to enable the move to the desired democratic system but it found that in order to achieve this, 11 articles should be amended not 6. The same committee added a clause to article 189 calling for the formation of the constituent assembly to write the new constitution. This was not part of the committee’s brief, but for the purpose of easing the transition it expanded the scope of its mission and made amendments to five other laws as published in Al-Ahram newspaper on 21st March. These laws govern the elections for the upper and lower houses of parliament, parties, political rights and the presidential election. Anyone who examines these changes carefully will find that in addition to the call for a new constitution, they stipulated a number of very important principles, such as the imposition of full judicial supervision of elections, both parliamentary and presidential, and the use of ID cards with national numbers to identify voters. With regards to parties, the committee asked for the membership of any party to have the sponsorship of one thousand people only, but the military council raised that to five thousand; it also stipulated that parties should not discriminate on religious grounds in their membership, programmes or policies. This was amended to parties not having any religious authority.

In one sense, we could say that if this package of draft laws was approved according to the original time-frame, the wheels of the new democratic system would have started turning by now and Egypt would have been a different place. However, matters are rarely that easy, not least because the membership of the constitution committee was led by a devout Muslim, State Councillor Tariq al-Bishri, and included among its seven members a jurist who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, so all hell broke loose. The more militant among the liberal intellectuals and secularists occupying the top media positions were mobilised and launched a fierce smear campaign. They tried the committee by media and condemned everything it produced, inciting public opinion to reject the amendments in the referendum. When the result was not to their liking, some of these “liberals” cursed the majority who voted for the amendments while the rest spread fears about the presence of Islamists and the possibility of their representatives winning the elections.

2. I know that the actions of some Islamic groups, the Salafis in particular, worried everyone; statements made by some associated with the movement distorted its image and were used to spread fear and intimidation. However, I would argue that these were factors which helped but were not the prime mover of the anti-Islamist campaign. If the Salafis kept silent or said something positive it would not affect the campaign of fear and intimidation. I even argue that the liberals and secularists do not see faults in the practices or statements of some Islamists; they just don’t want them given equal status or be involved in the electoral process in any way.
We all know that that is why there have been calls to postpone the elections in Egypt to avoid the “catastrophe” of Islamists winning; and why there is a debate about having a civil or theocratic state; and why there is a request to have laws above the constitution to prevent the occurrence of “the unthinkable” and the effect that would have on the new constitution with the presence of the Islamists. There have even been requests to set conditions and specifications for membership of the constitution committee to prevent “the evil ones” infiltrating it.

In parallel, we have heard scare stories about what would happen with Islamists in power. They would ask the Copts to pay tribute, it is said, and sever ears, apply corporal punishments or copy the Iranian model of “Guardianship of the Jurist”. There has been talk about raising the Saudi flag and calling for a return to the Islamic Caliphate during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as talk about a ban on bikinis which will hit Egypt’s tourism industry. Things which some people associated with the Islamic groups might have talked about have been taken by the media and attributed to the whole movement.

For example, in the middle of September there was an advertisement in Al-Yawm al-Sabae newspaper for a furnished flat to rent in al-Maadi district; the owners preferred Christian tenants. This was criticised as divisive, and a prominent liberal and secular writer wrote of his disapproval in Al-Akhbar newspaper a few days later. The main target of his ire was Muslims; he changed the details, claiming that the owners were Muslims just so that he could censure them.

3. I have three observations about what has happened in Egypt. The past six months were wasted in wrangling, exchanges and futile debate and the opportunity to establish the system for which the revolution took place was lost. We found ourselves facing a new million-people demonstration on Friday 30 September to reclaim the revolution.

The second observation is about the intimidation campaign which has been relatively successful in managing to reproduce the discourse of the previous regime in its use of terminology and characters; the “scarecrow” post-revolution is the same as the “scarecrow” pre-January 25.

The third observation is that the intimidation campaign covered a much wider front than we imagine. The language used by some Egyptians has been repeated by some dictators to warn the world about the spectre of fundamentalists and extremists rising to power in the event of their departure (Mubarak used to repeat such argument to the West, as did Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bashar Al-Asad). The same scaremongering was circulated in the Western media and talked about by politicians and diplomats who consider the rise of Islamists to be a threat to their interests and democracy (as if they were ever keen on real democracy). This is the same thing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned in his latest statement to the United Nations when he warned of the growing manifestations of “Islamic extremism”. The exact terminology and evaluation may have differed slightly, but the essence was the same.

What concerns me in this context is the echo caused by the revolutions in the oil-rich Arab states. As far as I know, the ruling cliques are not happy with the Arab Spring. Trusted sources say that this has been the subject of consultations between the leaders of these states since the start of the summer, in which five issues were raised:

  • Efforts should be made to stop the spread of the revolutions.
  • The appearance of politically active Islamic groups should be contained so that it will not have “undue” influence on political outcomes.
  • The Turkish influence has been increasing; it is welcomed in the economic field but the increasing share of the Justice and Development Party in Islamic authority whets the appetite of Islamic groups in the Arab World to follow them in their ambitions.
  • Some of the influential media in the Arab World – Al-Jazeera in particular – go beyond the red lines in the role they play. If the Gulf States express concerns at the spread of the revolution, then it is not wise for some Gulf-based media to agitate them.
  • People who have revolted against their leaders should not be rewarded for what they have done in order to stop them going further; they should receive a message of “dissatisfaction” from the Gulf States.

4. As far as I am aware, these consultations went on throughout the summer months. I am not sure of the role of interested Western parties, but there is no doubt that they were connected.
As autumn approached, several signs appeared on the horizon indicating that what was agreed during the summer was being implemented:

  • President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Sana after an absence of three months during which he was treated in Riyadh for injuries sustained in an assassination attempt. It was believed that he would not return for the sake of Yemen’s stability after widespread public insistence on him leaving office over the past six month.
  • Some countries have reneged on the offers of aid to alleviate the economic difficulties in Egypt. After one of the oil-producing countries announced it would provide $10 billion, another talked about seven billion and a third spoke of five billion; the figures were reduced until Egypt received a relatively small sum of $500 million on deposit from Saudi Arabia.
  • Instructions were given in some of countries to restrict the numbers of foreign workers coming from the revolutionary Arab countries, including Egypt. As a result, the number of employment contract renewals and new visas has been reduced significantly. 
  • A change has been effected at the top of Al-Jazeera, it being claimed that change is necessary to reflect the new situation in the region.

How will things work out? I do not know for sure, but as long as the angry Arab masses remain steadfast and determined in the streets and squares, then we should not worry about the future. Determination is guaranteed to foil attempts to abort and contain the revolution. We should not forget that our people have at last opened their eyes and they chose to live in freedom. This is the positive sign for the future.

This article was translated form his Arabic blog, Fahmi Huwaidi is an Egyptian writer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.