Monday, 23 July 2012

Letter from Cairo 20th July 2012

Palpable tension in Tahrir Square as Egyptians await the result of the presidential election.

In the afterword of my recently published book ‘From Trafalgar to Tahrir’, I begin with the words:  There have been moments of great joy during Egypt’s revolution, but there have also been many moments of extreme disappointment. There have been times of great optimism and times of inordinate pessimism. Unfortunately, the latter now outweighs the former.”  This was written on 25 January 2012, exactly one year after the initial Egyptian uprising and, unfortunately, at the time of writing, the future continues to look bleak.
To recapitulate a little, after our unprecedented eighteen day revolution, Egypt’s modern Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the news was greeted with a huge outburst of joy and celebration by thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square - the heart of the demonstrations.  Mubarak charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country, who promised to hand over power to a civilian government within six months and, at that stage, we were all filled with great hope.

However, as the months went by, it was obvious that our transition to democracy was going to be very difficult indeed.  There were many protests and demonstrations throughout the year in which the people asked for the prosecution of representatives of the old regime, demanded a new constitution, asked for the prime minster to be replaced and more particularly that a speedier handover to civilians take place.  Although the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to implement some of the political reforms that they had promised, they only did so under a deal of public pressure.  Some of the demonstrations became violent as protestors were attacked by riot police, civilian thugs employed by the Ministry of the Interior and military police.

However, finally and after much heartache, Egypt held its first parliamentary elections in three stages, between 28th November 2011 and 4th January 2012.  The Freedom and Justice Party, who represent the Muslim Brotherhood, won 47.2% of lower house parliamentary seats, followed by Al Nour party who won 24.7% seats.  The latter is composed of ultra conservative Muslims whose main goal is to apply Islamic Sharia in all aspects of life.  There was a great deal of disappointment over these results as not only were the liberals and the members of the youth revolution almost completely sidelined, but we felt that our worst nightmare was becoming a realisation and that the Muslim Brotherhood, who had been suppressed for decades, were now ready to take over the country and lead it into religious fanaticism.

From the outset it became evident that events in the lower parliament would not run smoothly.  During the inaugural session, which was supposed to be a quiet procedural session, there was chaos when some MPs improvised additions to the text of the oath they were taking and this provoked angry protests from the speaker.The oath ends with a pledge to respect the constitution and law, but an Islamist MP added "God's law" and was immediately emulated by other MPs.  

Since then, parliament’s plenary sessions, which were televised, grabbed the country’s attention and became something of a joke.  There was continual friction as well as clashes and outright shouting matches.  Online social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were flooded with comments and digital artwork depicting a parliament unable to engage in a serious debate about the country’s democratic transition and future. For many of us, the new parliament had little or nothing to do with our revolution and our humour turned to embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been and possibly still is the revolution’s most dangerous foe; it has continued to show great reluctance to hand over power to the civilians.
The military have in fact ruled Egypt since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 when there was a coup d'├ętat by a group of army officers, led by Abdel Nasser, who eventually, in 1956, became Egypt’s president. The revolution was initially aimed at overthrowing King Farouk, but the movement had more political ambitions, and soon moved to abolish the constitutional monarchy and aristocracy of Egypt, establish a republic, and end the British occupation of the country. 

Egypt's army is, today, in control of a vast business empire covering anything from the manufacturing of consumer goods, food, mineral water, construction, mining, land reclamation, to tourism. In fact, it has just finished building a massive new sports centre in the relatively new suburb called ‘New Cairo’, where the rich and powerful, including members of SCAF have luxurious villas. The ‘sports centre’ resembles a resort and boasts a hotel and other facilities, including an impressive five-lane motorway, a flyover and a tunnel to ease potential traffic congestion. 

Estimates of the size of their industries vary enormously and some say that they could account for around 40% of Egypt's gross national product.  However, no one knows for sure as the military’s accounts are a well kept secret.  What is more, the majority of Egypt's regional governors are retired army officers and many of the big civilian institutions and public sector corporations are run by former generals.
It is easy to see therefore why SCAF is reluctant to relinquish power.

Nevertheless, plans for the elections for a new president began with 23 presidential hopefuls and the elections were due to be held on 23rd and 24th May 2012.  However, on Saturday April 14th, the presidential commission disqualified ten of the candidates, for a variety of reasons.  Among the disqualified were the top two Islamist contenders, Hazem Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative Salafist preacher and Khairat el-Shater, a multimillionaire and the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategist.  This sent shock waves through an already volatile political establishment and there were protests and threats by the supporters of the Islamist candidates.  

We were now left with five major forerunners: 
  • ·         Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a physician, a long time Islamist activist and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • ·         Amr Moussa, a career diplomat, foreign minister under Mubarak and secretary general of the Arab League.
  • ·         Mohamed Morsi, an engineer and president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice Party (FJP).
  • ·         Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserite opposition figure who publicly participated in the uprising against Mubarak.
  • ·         Ahmed Shafiq, a long time member of Mubarak’s cabinet, and a military man, who was appointed Prime Minister during the uprising. He was in fact disqualified by the election commission for his association with the former regime, but was reinstated at the last minute after an appeal.  Many believe that he was the choice of the military.
The first day of the elections dawned and a great hush descended on the streets of Cairo as, with great excitement, people of all ages and from all walks of life made their way for the second time in six months to the voting stations (‘lagnas’), and then returned home to watch the outcome with bated breath.  And, as informal and unofficial results began to appear, some intriguing story lines began to emerge as well as a number of questions.  How had we so badly overestimated Amr Moussa’s chances?  Many of us had presumed that he would be the major front runner. We had expected Aboul Fotouh, who the Salafi community had endorsed, to do well but he was, so far, nowhere near in the lead. Had the Salafis abandoned him?  Mohamed Morsi seemed to be doing well, were our worst fears therefore going to be realised and would Egypt be ruled by an Islamist President?  How was it that Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate most closely aligned with Mubarak was also gaining many votes?  But perhaps the biggest question of all and the one that seemed to be upending all predictions was the reason for the sudden rise of Hamdeen Sabahi, who was twice a member of parliament during the Mubarak era and who had been jailed 17 times.  Although Sabahi’s surge in popularity during the weeks running up to the elections was palpable on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, he was dismissed by many analysts who considered that he had little chance of gaining a significant number of votes and in fact initial results showed that his was lagging far behind the others.  

Yet, quite suddenly during the second day of the voting, it became evident that he could be vying with Shafiq for second place, while Morsi was in the lead.  Indeed, the final results were very close, with Morsi obtaining 24.77% vote, Shafik 23.66% and Sabahi 20.7%.  

There were by now many rumours of electoral violations and, despite a public outpouring of frustration and the lodging of appeals, the Electoral Commission announced that there would be a run-off between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq which, as previously mentioned, was Egypt’s worst nightmare.  This led to suggestions that either Morsi or Shafiq should withdraw from the elections in order for Sabahi to compete in the run-off.  We were between the devil and the deep blue sea – an Islamist president or a president from the old regime.

After much wrangling and little awareness of what was going on behind closed doors, on Saturday 16 June and 17 June, voters went to the poles for the first competitively elected leader in Egypt’s history, facing a stark choice between Morsi and Shafiq.  However, much to everyone’s surprise the night before the run-off, SCAF, acting under a last minute ruling from the Supreme Constitutional Court, dissolved the Parliament and declared that it would be the sole lawmakers even after the election of a new president. The military then began to draw up a new interim constitution that would define the power of the president and there was emerging evidence that the future president would have as little authority as the Queen of England and would simply be a figurehead.  

Speculation and rumours were rife!  The fact that the military had seized Parliament ruled out the possibility of the Islamists controlling the legislature and the presidency.  This could mean that if Morsi won the presidency he would face a lengthy battle for power with the generals.  On the other hand, if Shafiq won, he could become a military-backed authoritarian in the same manner as Mubarak.

Meanwhile, and in the run up to the second round of elections, it became obvious that there was less enthusiasm than there had been for previous rounds of voting.  We were all totally disenchanted with the choice of candidates and there were calls in the streets, on the social media and by word of mouth to either boycott the elections or to hand in spoiled ballots.  There were many heated debates, particularly on Facebook, and a number of accusations that by boycotting the elections, we would simply be handing the power to Morsi.  

Somewhat reluctantly, the people went to the poles and voted.  Many, however, voted against their least favourite of the two rather that in support of either of the candidates.  By the end of Saturday, Morsi was already beginning to claim victory and shortly afterwards Shafiq retaliated with a similar declaration. 
The final results from the Higher Presidential Election Commission (HPEC) were due to be announced on 21 June but on Wednesday 20 June Egyptian election officials announced that they were postponing the results with the excuse that they needed time to look into a number of charges of electoral abuse.  This surprise delay intensified the feelings of anxiety and consternation that we had been suffering night and day and also aggravated the power struggle between the Brotherhood and SCAF.  

After almost a week of an anxious, nail-biting, anticipation we heard that the final results would be announced on Saturday 23 June.  However, no such announcement was made but, that evening there was a declaration that, further to one of many meetings between the generals and the Islamists, Farouk Sultan, head of the Presidential Elections Commission, would personally broadcast the results the following day, Sunday 24 June, at 3.00 p.m.

In the interim, there were widespread rumours of Mubarak’s declining health after he was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the killing of protesters during the uprising.  He appeared to be fluctuating between life and death and on several occasions was declared ‘clinically dead’.  So varied were the reports that we became somewhat cynical and began to feel that they were all a fabrication to take our minds off possible further delays in the election results.

Nevertheless, after a sleepless night, Sunday dawned and there was an eerie hush on the streets of Cairo.  The waiting was almost intolerable and much speculation began when we learned that security had been tightened in many areas in Cairo Security, with tanks and riot police deployed around the commission's headquarters and armoured vehicles and troops at the exits and entrances to Cairo airport.  Some Muslim Brotherhood officials had indeed made veiled threats of confrontation should Shafiq win the presidency and many Egyptian liberals were troubled by the recent violence by the hardline Islamists in Tunisia.  

The tightening of security appeared to signify that the army already knew the result and that they were taking suitable precautions.  This quite naturally led us to believe that Shafiq had won the election.  In the meantime, thousands of Morsi supporters gathered in Tahrir Square, where they urged SCAF to respect the will of the people, chanting "revolution, revolution until victory." Government employees were advised to leave early, which was another sign of the security precautions being taken, while shops closed almost as soon as they had opened as people hurried home to watch the decisive news conference on television.

Most of us were sitting anxiously and fearfully in front of our TV sets well before the allocated time of the results.  At 3.00 p.m. we were shown the interior of a room at the election commission’s headquarters where a few people were milling round, while others were seated facing a long table on a podium with five empty chairs.  And we waited!  After many more anxious minutes a 30 minute delay in the results was announced.
While we continued to wait, many of us were chatting on Facebook, tweeting, texting and talking on the phone, sometimes almost simultaneously, discussing what could possibility be causing the delay.  Finally, at 3.45 p.m. Farouk Sultan and four other members of the commission took their places and the empty chairs were filled.  Sultan was holding a large tome of papers and his address, which lasted over an hour, prompted increasing frustration.  Indeed, as people waited impatiently, many of them resorted to describing their agony on the social media.  Sultan explained the process and tried to convince his audience of the accuracy and legitimacy of the results, and then gave a full review of voting irregularities.  Our anxiety increased as he explained that the commission had received 456 appeals from both candidates and listened to their defence for six hours, resulting in a recount of the ballots of some of the polling stations.  He further elaborated by citing all the appeals and explaining how they affected the results.  As he detailed the thousands of votes for both Shafiq and Morsi that had been cancelled, we attempted to calculate the final results.  

When the tension became almost too much to bear, Sultan finally announced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi had won the election with a margin of 53.73%.  And, while the Morsi supporters in Tahrir Square became hysterical with joy, Shafiq’s campaigners were, dismayed and in utter disbelief.  

We now found ourselves with no constitution, no parliament and a president with no right to command his own country's army and what immediately became clear was that Morsi, in spite of being given an historic opportunity, will face enormous challenges.  He will need to face the generals and may possibly fall out with them; he will have to overcome the doubts of almost half the voters and the millions who either boycotted the voting, spoiled the votes or simply lost interest in the whole process; he will also have to convince the country that he represents a lot more than the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.  This is a man, who was the Brotherhood’s second choice, who during his campaign alternated between promoting himself as a liberal and as a defender of strict religious values and who, despite allegedly having gained a PhD in the States, possesses a poor grasp of the English language.  Above all, he will have to reach out to and allay the fears of the millions of Christians who, unofficially, make up ten percent of the population.  

Indeed, Morsi’s signing in as president was not an auspicious start as he had pledged that he would take the oath in Parliament but, because it had been dissolved, he was forced to swear in before a court of judges, many of whom had been appointed by Mubarak.

Morsi’s first major problem reared its ugly head almost immediately when he pushed for the reinstatement of Parliament in defiance of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).  However, after a deal of wrangling and what was expected to be an enormous showdown, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party finally backed down.

We now await future developments with bated breath.