Egyptians may have pulled off a popular revolution last year, ending decades-long despotic rule, but the country is still in a state of unrest. Protests and rallies are not centred around cities such as Cairo alone —where the middle class was the main force in the 2011 revolution – but reverberate even in rural areas.
On January 25, when Egypt should have marked the first anniversary of its people’s revolt, which saw the overthrow of the autocratic Hosni Mubarak’s regime, much more was expected of the African state that is in many ways the Sachin Tendulkar of Arab nations — an inspirational, leading role player. It had even successfully conducted three-phase polls for the lower house of parliament by January 11, and it looked as though like its Tunisian neighbour Egypt too would say goodbye to unrest and protests, gun battles and tear gas, and switch to the arsenal of ballot papers. Like much of the non-Arab world, particularly the West, and champion democracies such as India.
However, by February 1, this proved to be wishful thinking. On that Wednesday riots erupted at a football stadium in Port Said, before the game began. Termed the worst football riots in the history of the sport in 15 years, the riots left over 70 dead and thousands injured across the country. Obviously, the football pitch was merely a catalyst for the simmering discontent. Especially if one were to believe the authorities who blamed the youth for the pitched battle on the football ground in Port Said. But the Wednesday event continued to fester, even turning out to be another rallying call for protesters to gather at Tahrir Square — the same spot where only a year ago hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to effectively force Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Clearly the popular revolution of 2011 is not complete. It has yet to deliver a system of governance where such unrest, clashes and, above all, death on the streets can be contained in their entirety.
Why Egypt Must Succeed
Experts believe that lack of complete political freedom, job prospects and economic growth are the major reasons for the continued upheaval. Establishing a transparent system of governance, ensuring that tourism is revived and returning Egypt to its prominent position among the Arab states are seen as the need of the hour.
With a population of 85 million, Egypt enjoys a unique place in history as a country of reckoning, geographically in a position of strength due to the Suez Canal, which makes it possible for ships to reach Asia without having to go around the Cape of Good Hope.
It has pride of place in the 22-member Arab League.
It forged peace with Israel — in fact the first Arab country to do so — and has been a key ally of the West.
If the revolution in Egypt turns out to be a failure, it will be a setback for the other Arab nations, trying to scramble out of the hole of authoritarianism.
Egypt has been, and should be, home to a more tolerant Islamism.
A year after the revolution, there is a strong feeling among many that the ‘caretaker’ military regime in Egypt could be dragging its feet on transferring power to a civilian regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a two-thirds majority in the recently concluded lower parliamentary elections. Historically the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as being moderate, not extremist, in its outlook and approach.
A Year On
One year into the revolution the democratic process is not complete. The Emergency Law (evoked in 1981) continues to be in place and last year the military expanded its scope to ban labour strikes and demonstrations. Field Maarshal Mohamed Hussain Tantawi has said the emergency law will continue to be in place, and be used by the police, when necessary. This has not gone down well with the people, who do not want one totalitarian regime to be replaced by another.
The question now engaging everyone is how to get Egypt back on its feet. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2011 dropped from 5 per cent to 1 per cent. Inflation continues to rise while tourism, the lifeline of at least 15 million Egyptians, has taken a hit. Reports say that workers unable to find jobs in resorts on the Nile or Luxor are migrating to cities in search of jobs. A major cause for the drop in tourism is the perception of instability.
Egypt’s foreign currency reserves are at around $10 billion — down from $36 billion last year — but the IMF is willing to step in with a loan to send the right signal to investors. However, Egypt must set its political house in order first; elections to the upper house in February, and the proposed presidential election in June should be held in an even more transparent manner. Above all, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces should hand over power. The football fans who rioted in Port Said could well have been ‘Ultras’, the youth force that was at the forefront of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak.
Milestones, Past And Pending
Elections to the lower parliament were successfully held, with victory going to the Islamists.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party got a 47 per cent share of seats in the 498-seat Assembly.
The Salafi party is the second largest victor, with a 25 per cent share of the seats.
In many ways the parties represent two ends of a spectrum; the Brotherhood is believed to be moderate, while the Salafists are considered conservative Muslims who prefer to abide by the ancient way of living — they believe a woman’s place is at home.
These two parties have to arrive at a common ground, preferably with progressive thinkers in both camps, to take Egypt forward.
Also, later this month, the people will vote to elect members to the Upper House, the Shura Council.
In June the Parliament will have to select a 100-member board, with the mandate to draft a new Constitution.
Running through all these developments is the continued unrest, and a demand from many protesters for the SCAF to step down. Tantawi is adamant that the SCAF will step down only after a new president is elected. Protesters say they believe they deserve a better leadership.
There are concerns all around that the Islamists’ ascendency may in many ways be a setback for a democratic and pluralistic — or at least a secular — society that Egypt can and should forge. Currently, the civilised world’s attention is focused on Syria where calls for ending Bashar al-Assad’s regime have turned increasingly violent.
But let us not forget the embers in Egypt. They need to be put out completely. The only way to achieve that is to accelerate the democratic process, and for the military regime to step back. And for all elected members to focus on economic development.