Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY

The Egyptian uprising, one year on


Anthony Bubalo

25 January 2012 13:37

As Egyptians observe the first anniversary of their uprising, spare a thought for Tunisia. It was the uprising there which sparked off a year of political turmoil in much of the Arab world, yet Tunisia hardly seems to rate a mention anymore. It's a shame, not least since Tunisia's transition to democratic rule seems to be going OK. But it is also understandable.

It is a cliché — which does not make it any less true — that what happens in Egypt will affect the prospects for democratic change in the Arab world much more than developments in any other single country. This reflects Egypt's size, historic role and influence in the Middle East.

You could write a book about what has gone right in Egypt in the past year, and a bookshelf about what hasn't. It's more useful to look at the challenges that lie ahead. Three in particular will determine whether the Egyptian uprising will become a true democratic revolution or a merely changing of the dictatorial guard.

1. Will the Brotherhood and the military clash or cooperate?

The Muslim Brotherhood has won a commanding presence (just under half the seats) in the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, but it is not yet clear what power parliament commands. Executive power remains with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forced (SCAF), although the military could appoint a few Muslim Brothers to the transitional cabinet. Under transitional arrangements, parliament's main role is to form a 100-person committee to write a new constitution, but it is not clear that the SCAF will give it a free hand to even do that. 

In short, whether and how the SCAF and the Brotherhood reconcile their differences over constitutional and other issues will determine the course of Egypt's political transformation, at least in the short term. And here the immediate battle is less likely to be over whether Egypt should be an Islamic state or a secular one than whether power should shift to the parliament (which the Brotherhood prefers) or stay with the president (and until a president is elected, the SCAF).

As these negotiations play out, the main risk is that the SCAF and the Brotherhood's hitherto workable, if at times uneasy, relationship will break down. If this happens it could be very bloody, given the number of people both sides could put on the streets. But there are almost as many dangers for Egypt's democratic evolution in a relationship between the SCAF and the Brotherhood that is too cosy and that sees the interests of the broader community — including copts, women, secularists, and the young — sacrificed to serve their narrower interests.

2. Will Egypt avoid an economic crisis?

The need for the SCAF, the Brotherhood and indeed all political actors to show greater political leadership and responsibility is underlined by Egypt's economic circumstances. According to Egypt's Central Bank, foreign investment declined 93% in the first nine months of 2011. Tourism has crashed, economic growth has sunk, inflation is rising and foreign reserves have declined to dangerously low levels. 

Add to this high popular expectations for economic improvement and Europe's economic woes (which will see fewer German, Spanish and Italian tourists in Egyptian beaches even if the country stabilises) and you have an enormous political and policy challenge.

It is little wonder the SCAF has suddenly become more interested in an IMF loan they summarily rejected late last year. But while an injection of funds will undoubtedly help, more important will be how it is spent. Unfortunately, as a friend and an astute observer of the region told me after a recent trip to Egypt, for the moment at least everyone seems to want political power while avoiding responsibility for getting Egypt out of its economic mess.

Will the revolutionary youth return to the streets, or to the cafes, or what?

There has been a tendency of late both inside Egypt and outside to question the continuing relevance of the young revolutionaries that were at the forefront of the uprising. 

Critics point to their unwillingness or failure to organise politically after the overthrow of Mubarak, reflected in their poor showing in the parliamentary elections. The critics argue that street protests, clashes with security forces and demands for 'revolution 2.0' have become ends in themselves, at odds with the desire of most Egyptians for security, stability and economic improvement.

It is easy to be critical of the motley collection of Tahrir youth. For all the courage, idealism and high principles they have shown in the last year, they have also been naive, willful, egotistical and at times even thuggish. But I have sympathy for them on the question of their supposed political failure.

They were able to confound and outmaneuver the Mubarak regime precisely because they were not like the traditional opposition movements that the regime had by-and-large tamed. So it is no surprise that, after the revolution, many were reluctant to become conventional politicians. Indeed, those that that did often fared badly in the elections, for a combination of reasons, but not least because they were up against movements like the Muslim Brotherhood with a long history and experience of political mobilisation and electoral contests.

But this does not mean that the young guard should just 'keep on keeping on'. Even if a drift into conventional politics would have been (or in some cases, was) a mistake, an indefinite occupation of Tahrir Square, both literally and figuratively, is not the answer either. To do so risks them becoming cannon fodder for, or even marionettes of, the SCAF, the Brotherhood, or both. Or it could see many of their numbers drift away, disillusioned with politics altogether. 

More importantly, it risks widening the gulf between the young guard and the broader population. Here the young should learn from the Brotherhood, which has been successful not just because it is well organised, as is so often said, but because its community networks allow it to better understand what people want. 

To remain relevant, the revolutionary youth need to develop similar political antennae while coming up with new forms of activism that enable them to more effectively and constructively articulate their interests and demands. In effect, they need to become more like politicians while, at the same time, remaining less like them.