People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

February 26, 2012


Egypt: One Year after the Revolution


Yohannan Chemerapally


IN January last year, the Tahrir Square of Cairo had erupted with revolutionary fervour. Thousands of Egyptian workers, students and intellectuals joined hands to take on a pro-western authoritarian regime. Within weeks, Hosni Mubarak, in power since the late seventies, was forced to abdicate.




The Egyptian revolution was inspired by the events in Tunisia, where for the first time a military backed dictatorship was overthrown by a peaceful uprising of the people. The Islamist opposition in Egypt, led by the Muslim Brothers, only joined in the anti-regime protests which had swept the country after the movement had gained momentum. All the same, the organisational acumen of Muslim Brothers proved invaluable when the protestors had to face the full wrath of the Egyptian security apparatus at Tahrir Square.


More than 840 protestors had lost their lives in the struggle to restore democracy. Thousands of the young protestors were arrested in the sporadic protests that have continued against the continued domination of the Egyptian military in the political life of the country. About 3000 activists were released in late January by the ruling military council --- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by the long time associate of Hosni Mubarak, General Hussein Tantawi. He was President Hosni Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades. The current prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, chosen by the SCAF, had held the same post under Mubarak for a shorter term.


After the overthrow of Mubarak, the country has witnessed a spate of industrial action by workers demanding better conditions and wages.


In the last week of January, protestors again started a sit-in at Tahrir Square to commemorate the first anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. The students gathered in the Square waved banners demanding an “end to military rule.” An Egyptian intellectual and pro-democracy activist, Alaa al-Aswani wrote that Egyptians should once again take to the streets, “not to celebrate a revolution which has not achieved its goals, but to demonstrate peacefully our determination to achieve the objectives of the revolution.” Many Egyptians want the army to cede power immediately and allow the civilians the freedom to draft a new constitution. In the last week of January, the SCAF partially lifted the state of emergency which has been in force since 1981. The military authorities have said that the emergency laws are still applicable to acts defined under the broad category of “thuggery.” The emergency laws allow arbitrary and long term detentions.




But there is also evidence that the majority of Egyptians are still willing to give the SCAF the benefit of the doubt. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre showed that around 80 per cent still trust the army’s motives. Under the military backed caretaker government, successful elections to a constituent assembly have been held. The newly elected Egyptian lower house of parliament met for the first time on January 23, a few days after the completion of the historic elections. The elections were the freest so far in modern Egypt’s history. Though the elections were held with the country under a caretaker government led by the military, the Egyptian people seemed to have generally accepted the results. For the first time they could exercise their vote without being intimidated or the ballot boxes being stuffed. The country’s Election Commission has admitted to some voting irregularities but the process has been deemed fair and transparent by local NGO’s and international observers. The Atlanta based Carter Centre, which had sent poll observers, said in a statement said “that the results appear to be a broadly accurate expression of the will of the voters.” The statement, however, went on to add that “the ultimate success of Egypt’s transition will depend on the earliest possible handover of power to a civilian government that is accountable to the Egyptian people.”  


The party that came out on top was the Muslim Brotherhood led Freedom and Justice Party, which took 47 per cent of the vote. Another Islamist grouping, the more conservative Al-Nour Party, came second polling 25 per cent of the vote. In the 498 seat parliament, the Muslim Brothers will have 213 seats, followed by the Al Nour which got 125 seats. Together, these two parties will have an overwhelming majority, constituting two-thirds of the seats. However, the leadership of the Muslim Brothers, like their counterparts in Tunisia, would prefer to have a coalition government with the smaller liberal and secular parties that have also found representation in the new parliament. It is also a signal to the West that they have no hidden Islamist agenda. The party is also aware that Egyptians are more interested in the betterment of their standard of living than in Islamic rhetoric.


The Muslim Brothers have ideological differences with Al Nour. The latter adheres to a “Salafist” theology akin to the kind practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Nour Party has its roots in the organisation --- “the Salafist Call” founded in the seventies. It was formed to counter the domination of the Muslim Brothers among university students. Both the parties struck a chord with electorate because of the large scale charity work they did in poor and deprived areas all across the country during the long running Mubarak dictatorship. The Mubarak government, while prohibiting them from openly participating in politics, allowed them to work relatively freely in the social sector.




The liberals and the leftists, who were instrumental in sparking the revolution, dismally failed to connect with the mass of voters, especially those in the rural areas. The Egyptian Bloc, founded by the telecom magnate, Naguib Sawiris, a Christian Copt, got round 9 per cent of the seats as did the liberal Wafd Party, Egypt’s oldest party. Coptic Christians constitute around 10 per cent of Egypt’s population. After the fall of Mubarak, their churches have been targeted by radical Islamists. In one incident in October last year, Copts demonstrating peacefully in Cairo were fired upon by the police. 30 protestors lost their lives. Coptic leaders have been worried by the meteoric rise of the Islamists, especially the Al Nour. The Al Nour leaders have, however, promised to leave Christians out of the ambit of Sharia law which they want the country to adopt.


The parliament has been tasked with writing a new constitution. Secular minded Egyptians are worried that a parliament dominated by the Islamist would now have the responsibility for drafting a new constitution. Others are also not happy about the new constitution being drafted at a time when the military continues to be at the helm of affairs in Egypt. Many politicians, including some from the Muslim Brothers, would prefer that the new constitution should be debated and approved after the presidential elections to be held later in the year. The Muslim Brothers have categorically stated that they are against the calls being given for a “second revolution” against the military’s continued dominance in the affairs of state. In fact, they now are not averse to working under the military appointed government till June this year, when presidential elections are due to be held. Till late last year, the leadership of the Muslim Brothers were openly saying that they would deny the military the right to name the prime minister and the cabinet once a new assembly was elected.


The Obama administration has established direct contacts with the Islamists as the writing on the wall was clear from the outset that they would end up getting the largest number of seats in the parliament. Till recently, American officials were prohibited from talking to the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Mubarak days, Washington had turned a blind eye to the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Egypt under Mubarak was a lynchpin of US policy in the West Asia region. After the Egyptian government under Anwar Sadat signed the historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the US became the biggest provider of financial and military aid to the country. The leadership of the Muslim Brothers have indicated that they would continue to adhere to the peace treaty with Israel once they are in office. The Hamas, which is in power in Gaza, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The two parties have extremely close links. The Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, was recently given a warm welcome in Cairo. Israel fears that Egypt’s policy under a government led by the Muslim Brothers could undergo a change. They know that the Islamists will not give Israel a free hand on Palestine like Mubarak did.




Anyway, as things stand today, the Egyptian armed forces, which have been intimately involved in the country’s affairs since the early fifties, seems determined to continue playing an important role. The army’s leadership, with the tacit support of Washington, wants to ensure that there is no dramatic shift in the country’s politics. Reports from Cairo indicate that the army leadership and the moderate Islamists have already reached an informal agreement that Egypt would retain its broad secular character under a mixed form of French style presidential/parliamentary form of government. Statements from military officials and leaders of the Muslim Brother indicate that the 1971 constitution will remain largely untouched. The 1971 constitution has a clause which states that the principles of Islamic law are the basis of Egyptian law.


The two sides are still talking about the powers the military will still retain under a popularly elected government. According to reports, discussions are ongoing about the degree of civilian oversight over the military and the issue of immunity from prosecution for top military leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood has given its approval to a declaration that has come from the Al Azhar theological centre, an institution that is held in high esteem in the Muslim world. Al Azhar wants the protection of religious observance, artistic expressions, scientific enquiry, theological dissent and civil society groups.


Meanwhile, liberal politicians like Ayman Nour and Mohammed ElBaradei have announced that they will not be contesting in the Presidential polls scheduled later in the year. They have said that the democratic reforms have been superficial in nature. Nour and El Baradei were the only two prominent politicians who openly dared to challenge Mubarak when he was still president. Both of them allege that the military is trying to preserve its traditional role. Nour spent many years in jail after running against Mubarak in an earlier election. He said that a “counter-revolution” is now running Egypt.