Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has emphasised in her frequent statements on Egypt the importance of maintaining stability and of following a democratic path. But in the past three years Egypt has seen six cabinet reshuffles, the most recent sparked by last week’s mass dismissal of ministers. All of these changes have failed to fulfil the basic economic and political aspirations of Egyptians, let alone the demands of the revolution of 25 January 2011 for human dignity and social justice. The newly formed cabinet of prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab sends a clear signal as to the future direction the country is taking: a dangerous mix of authoritarianism and state corruption, at best a re-run of deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
The sacking of former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s cabinet after seven months came just a few months short of the anticipated presidential and parliamentary elections which would have led to the formation of a new cabinet. Analysts attribute Al-Beblawi’s dismissal to coup leader Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s expected presidential candidacy, as well as to the government’s incompetence. But the latter argument is not convincing, since more than two-thirds of El-Beblawi’s ministers kept their portfolios in the new cabinet.
The composition of this cabinet dashed hopes for a democratic future or meaningful change. It reinforces the fears held by many that a counter-revolution is well underway, setting the country back on the path of another long autocratic rule.
Mahlab himself was a senior member of Mubarak’s regime; a close associate of Mubarak’s son, Gamal; and was strongly implicated in many alleged corruption cases. He has also already spoken of the “combative” mission of his new government, calling it a “cabinet of warriors” – a signal that the regime’s repressive policies against its political opponents will continue. According to human rights reports, since last July at least 3,000 people have been killed, 16,000 injured, and 22,000 imprisoned, including dozens of journalists.
As a long-time opponent of Mubarak’s despotic rule, and of the restoration of another authoritarian regime last year, I was targeted by the coup government for my vehement vocal opposition. I have never been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I was lumped into a serious criminal case with the leaders of that group – which brought outrageous charges against me, including espionage and the attempt to overthrow the regime: charges that could bring the death penalty. If such reckless accusations could happen to me, an independent academic, then no one is immune in Sisi’s Egypt.
But the brutal crackdown has not succeeded in ending a growing wave of protests. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have been taking to the streets every week, and new protests led by young people have intensified, demanding the restoration of democracy. Regrettably, police brutality, mass arrests, torture and rape have become commonplace and are provoking counter violence. Several police cars have been torched and a dozen police officers killed by angry dissidents.
The new government signals a shift in alliances from the anti-Brotherhood secularist opposition – those who provided the political cover for the coup – to allies of the Mubarak regime, its business cronies and oligarchs who will be needed to support Sisi’s expected presidential run.
But a Sisi presidency will have little chance of bringing stability, as the deterioration in security is continuing unabated, the economy is spiralling out of control, and the country’s infrastructure is falling apart. Energy shortages, electricity outages and soaring food prices have been the worst for years despite generous handouts from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
Sisi doesn’t seem to realise the deep rifts and political polarisation his policies have created. Neither a cabinet reshuffle nor a new dictator can heal these divisions. The real crisis in Egypt is that no one has a clear vision or a concrete strategy to take on the challenges.
No improvement in security or economic stability can take hold before the political crisis is resolved. Since the 2011 revolt, a substantial number of Egyptians will no longer accept the return of military rule. Clearly, the hardline tactics employed by the regime to bring its opponents to heel have not worked.
To restore democracy and bring stability the military must first stay away from politics once and for all. The best indication of this principle would be the barring of all those with military backgrounds from standing for the presidency or other senior roles. For six decades Egypt’s military has been in control of most of its political and economic life: of 27 governors, 19 are former army generals. Moreover, the chief executives of 55 of Egypt’s largest companies, which control as much as a third of the economy, are former generals.
Secondly, the political polarisation engulfing the country must be defused. This can only take place when all political parties and movements are allowed to operate freely without fear or intimidation. This necessitates the dismantling of the police state that returned last July. In addition, we need the restoration of the rule of law, civil liberties and human rights; reform of the judiciary; and an end to polarising media campaigns. All political prisoners must be released and all sham trials must end.
Finally, transitional justice must be adhered to in order to heal our society. Reconciliation efforts and independent investigations led by credible institutions must take place, and those responsible for gross violations of human rights must be brought to justice.
The EU and other democratic nations can and must help bring about such an outcome. Democracy in Egypt will not be restored until the international community takes a strong and unequivocal stand against military rule and the police state.
This article was written for and first piblished on The Guardian
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.