More than a year after the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are faced with a curious dilemma that is both promising as well as frustrating. It is promising because the military regime has been forced to bring forward the date of presidential elections to May. And it is frustrating because the military continues to make all the decisions and appears unwilling to accede to the demands of the people whose sacrifices drove the dictator from power.
Egypt has already been through a convoluted process of parliamentary elections in which the Freedom and Justice Party supported by al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood), has garnered the largest number of seats in parliament. The second largest block of votes went to al-Nur, the Salafi party. Their strong showing surprised many observers and embarrassed the secularists (who did poorly) as well as their foreign sponsors. For decades, Islamic groups, especially the Ikhwan were shut out of the political process. The party was banned and its leaders and workers incarcerated by the thousands. Many were mercilessly tortured and/or murdered. The Western media and politicians habitually dismissed them as a spent force. Between them, the Ikhwan and al-Nur won two-thirds of the popular vote in parliamentary elections.
Since the elections, pressure has been growing from the newly elected lawmakers for an immediate transition to civilian rule. Activists throughout the country have also been demanding that the military quit immediately. February 11, the date on which Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, was marked by massive demonstrations, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The largest turnout was by the Ikhwan who demonstrated both their street power as well as discipline. They have been no less assertive inside the parliament. Some of their members have hinted that they could force a no-confidence vote to oust the military-appointed cabinet. Should that happen, it would create a major dilemma for the regime.
Perhaps it was this growing pressure both inside and outside parliament that forced the military council to bring the date of presidential elections forward by one month to May 2012. Mohammed Attiya, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Local Development, was quoted on the state-run al-Ahram newspaper’s website on February 15 as saying that the vote will be held sometime in late May. According to the military’s original plan, it was scheduled for 2013 and even then, it was going to decide how much power would be conceded. Public pressure forced it to bring the date forward to the end of June. Now, the timeline has been reduced by another month. It may not sound like a lot but in the context of Egypt, it is significant.
Some Ikhwani leaders have floated the idea of forming a temporary government to replace the current ruling military council. Should this materialize, this would lead to direct confrontation with the military. Whether the Ikhwan’s idea of forming a temporary government was a ploy to force the military council to hold the elections early is difficult to tell. Some people accuse the Ikhwan of working in tandem with the military; others say that as the most organized party and having already demonstrated their strength in the parliamentary polls, they do not wish to rock the boat so close to the presidential vote. Under Egypt’s constitution, the president wields enormous powers. Registration for the presidential contest starts on March 10.
While the run up to presidential polls has generated considerable excitement, two other developments continue to grip popular attention. One is the arrest last December of 53 foreigners among them 19 Americans, accused of financing groups to manipulate the Egyptian political process and illegally collecting information to send back to the US. The other is the dire economic condition of the country because of continuing unrest.
It was announced on February 18 that the trial of foreigners would commence on February 26 (after this issue of Crescent goes to press). The case has aroused considerable ire in the US. President Barack Obama has also waded into the controversy with threats to withhold $1.5 billion in annual aid. Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri shot back: “Egypt will not kneel.” When Americans perpetrate crimes anywhere in the world, their government immediate jumps into the fray demanding their release. Threats and blackmailing tactics are deployed. On February 20, six American senators led by John McCain were in Cairo to meet Field Marshal Muhamed Hussein Tantawi. After the meeting, McCain said Tantawi had promised to resolve the issue expeditiously. Did Tantawi promise to release the American spies without a trial or perhaps after going through the motions of a trial and releasing them soon thereafter? Foreigners especially Muslims, arrested in the US on mere suspicion are tortured and brutalized by the police. When put on trial, they are routinely handed down long, harsh sentences.
The foreigners’ case in Egypt has attracted additional attention because one of the detainees is Sam LaHood, son of US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood is chief of the US-based International Republican Institute’s branch in Egypt. Another American group, the National Democratic Institute has also been involved that together with the Republican Institute ostensibly promote democracy abroad. Both groups are federally funded and have close ties to US congressional leaders and the National Endowment for Democracy, which has been instrumental in sabotaging popular representative movements across the world, chiefly in America’s own backyard in Latin America. When Americans talk about promoting democracy abroad, it should arouse deep concern; just ask the Afghans and the Iraqis and the fruits of democracy delivered to them through cruise missiles.
Both groups have been operating in Egypt illegally. Under Egyptian law, foreign organizations can only aid civil society groups but in order to provide funds, they must be registered. Neither of the American groups is registered in Egypt. In a televised news conference on February 8, Judge Sameh Abu Zaid declared that the groups did not qualify as “civil society” organizations because their purpose was purely political, to influence the political situation in Egypt. The two US groups and others from the West were doing more. They were illegally collecting information on the political views of various groups, creating divisions among various religious groups and distributing money to create unrest. The information thus collected was being passed on to the US. In common parlance, this would be called spying.
Despite American pressure, the Egyptian government has said it is determined to proceed with the case. It would be interesting to see whether it would actually do so, given its dire economic straits and the decline in tourist revenue over the last year because of political unrest. This is where the military regime, or whoever comes into power after it, will be vulnerable. There have already been complaints about the ongoing protests because people’s businesses have been affected. This can be exploited by vested interests to undermine the political process. Not only are foreign powers — the US, Israel and their Western and Arabian allies — destabilizing an already combustible situation, but also Egyptian business and military classes are involved in creating divisions among the people. They feel their interests will be adversely affected if a truly representative government were established.
Unfortunately the Ikhwan have not shown the kind of leadership that is required at this juncture. Armed with a popular mandate they should press for immediate transfer of power and the creation of representative institutions that will serve the people, not the vested interests of the elites or their foreign masters. The revolution in Egypt remains unfinished. The struggle must go on until the people’s rights have been fully restored.