As Egypt prepares for a presidential election that is likely to re-establish authoritarian rule, the civil society groups and Facebook activists once feted by Western media are marginalized and impotent, having failed to make the transition from protest to politics.
“In reality, the youths who helped bring down two presidents were squeezed in a mighty power struggle between deeply entrenched old-style forces: the Muslim Brotherhood, a grassroots movement based on religion and charity, and the formidable authoritarian state built on patronage networks nurtured since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952,” writes FT analyst Heba Saleh:
While in 2011 Egypt’s young revolutionaries seemed to have irreversibly turned the tide of history, the country’s political realities soon set in. It was the army that delivered the final push to Mr Mubarak, and Brotherhood supporters who beefed up the numbers in Tahrir Square. Fragmented, with nothing like the once well-honed electoral machine of the more-practised Muslim Brotherhood and none of the financial resources and connections of Mubarak-era politicians, young people could not translate their initial blaze of glory and hope into electoral backing to help change the system through institutional means.
Analysts say it was too much to expect a transformation led by youthful protesters in a country unused to democratic practice and emerging from decades of authoritarianism, under which politics was all but dead. New groups, including the liberal and leftwing parties that some of the young activists joined, lack the funds, organisation and rhetorical skills to generate broad appeal in a large and impoverished population.
“Criticism of the youth did not take into consideration that they came to age in an era when there was no politics and no organisation, and accordingly they need time,” says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo.
She believes that attempts by the regime to shut down protests by disaffected youth will ultimately fail. The legacy of the “Nasserist state” was based on the government’s provision of material benefits, which bought the political quiescence of the population. That is no longer tenable given the country’s precarious economy. “People have political and economic expectations that are not being met through the old formula. The machinery of the state is already eroded. There will be more instability ahead.”
“The January 2011 Revolution was characterized by a democratic agenda and a clear popular demand to seize the right to choose, enjoy liberty and escape from the tutelage that had been exercised by Egypt’s rulers in different forms from 1952 to 2011,” analyst Amr Hamzawy writes for Egypt Source. “Despite this, attempts to re-impose this tutelage on the Egyptian people have not ceased and have come from increasingly diverse sources.”
“We are living with the repercussions of a failed revolution,” said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “This is leading to a lot of despair among youth. A lot of young Egyptians feel betrayed by the political elite and have no sense of hope for the future.”
Aspirations now lie with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former army chief who led Mursi’s overthrow and whose only rival in a presidential election next week is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. El-Sisi is expected to win and inherit a nation many Egyptians say can’t cope with another false dawn. In his election campaign, El-Sisi declared he is ready for “this big battle, the battle of fighting terrorism, the battle of building, eliminating poverty and diseases and establishing a modern country.” ….
“People revolted because there was some sort of a political alternative for them,” said Ashraf El-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo. “This time people know there’s no alternative.”
Since the removal of the Mubarak regime in 2011, the United States has struggled to develop a coherent policy of engagement that can protect American interests while winning trust among Egyptians and their leaders, says Michele Dunne (right), a Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
American assistance, either funding for NGOs during the Morsi period or military assistance to the Sisi regime, has often been unpopular with many Egyptians, she writes in a new briefing for the Arab Reform Initative.
Throughout this period, the US has focused on cooperating with whoever is in power in order to continue security cooperation. Cooperation with the regime, however, may clash with American interests in supporting a new democratic opening, says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
US strategy should be based on a forthright assessment of what, rather than whom, the United States should support in Egypt, she contends:
Simple principles can help to guide this assessment. First, only by maintaining a reasonable level of stability can Egypt be a good security ally or counterterrorism partner for the United States, a good peace partner for Israel, and a good trade partner for Europe. Second, overcoming the current situation of repression, protest, and escalating insurgency will require a situation in which Egyptians can move beyond polarization to build consensus on the future of their country. Thus, what the United States should support is the opening of space for free expression, political and social pluralism, and civil society activity. Third, Egypt faces dire economic challenges that can only be resolved by responsible government reforms (gradual replacement of subsidies with cash payments to the poor) and facilitating job creation by the private sector (especially small and medium enterprises). Fourth, since Egypt faces a real challenge by terrorist groups based in the Sinai, the United States should support a policy of economic and political engagement with the population in that region in order to combat support for extremism. RTWT
The European Union is also in danger of repeating past mistakes, according to Álvaro Vasconcelos, an Associate Senior Researcher with the Arab Reform Initiative.
“EU policies toward the countries of the southern Mediterranean went through several phases in the past two decades, with varying degrees of emphasis on issues such as democratic reform, migration management and the fight against terrorism,” he contends:
There is another course of action which the EU could adopt in Egypt that is more compatible with its values and with its long-term interests in a democratic and developed neighbourhood around its borders.
This would encourage a genuinely national dialogue in which all political currents could participate. The EU needs to understand that a president elected while so many opposition leaders are in jail will not have the legitimacy necessary to assure stability and, at the end of the day, to overcome the serious political, security, social and economic challenges facing Egypt.
The EU, in short, needs to support an inclusive policy among all Egyptian political forces and, above all, demand the liberation of the almost 20 000 political prisoners from all corners of the political arena. It needs to return to a policy of defending human rights and empowering civil society, to whose most of the financial support it offers should be directed.