Egypt, long a beacon of stability in the Arab world, has been thrown into disarray since the downfall of its authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, two years ago this month.
Mubarak, a pro-western secular leader who presided over a dictatorial regime and preserved Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, was toppled during the Arab Spring, the internal rebellions that have boldly challenged the stultified political order in the Middle East. Mubarak, who held office for nearly three decades, resigned after 18 days of increasingly violent street protests, transferring his authority to the armed forces, which would imprison him and his two sons on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
During this interim period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body that inherited Mubarak’s mantle, was headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the longtime defence minister. Tantawi, self-servingly, usurped yet more power while blandly professing to be in favour of democracy.
Last June, the candidate of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, an American-educated engineer, won post-revolutionary Egypt’s first free presidential election with only 51 per cent of the popular vote. He defeated Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and a coterie of progressive and nationalist candidates who had initiated the revolution. In effect, the Muslim Brotherhood hijacked the 2011 revolution.
Morsi, who had vowed to be “a president for all Egyptians,” was swiftly undermined by the army, the strongest institution in Egypt since the 1952 revolution. Tantawi and his fellow generals staged a soft coup, dissolving parliament – controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood – placing strict limits on Morsi’s powers, seizing control of the process of drafting a new constitution and re-establishing martial law, which Mubarak had imposed after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.
With these draconian measures, Tantawi threw Egypt back into the muck of authoritarianism, making a mockery of the democratic rhetoric that had defined the 2011 revolution.
But in an astonishing counter-coup last August, Morsi struck back, using an incident in the Sinai Peninsula, in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by a band of Islamic fundamentalists, to reassert his authority.
Morsi forced Tantawi into retirement, dismissed army chief of staff Sami Hafez Anan, regarded as Tantawi’s successor, sacked a number of other generals and fired the governor of northern Sinai as well as the chief of military intelligence. He also appointed a new defence minister, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.
Pundits generally agree that Morsi’s moves were inspired by Turkey’s campaign of recent years to reduce the outsize influence of the armed forces.
Having assertively propped up his Islamist regime, Morsi may have assumed he had carte blanche to do whatever he pleased.
He was dead wrong.
Last November, under the pretext of speeding up Egypt’s bumpy and convoluted transition from autocracy to democracy, he issued a sweeping decree granting himself immunity from judicial oversight.
The measure touched off a wave of unrest.
Claiming the decree was required to ratify a new constitution and block a conspiracy by pro-Mubarak forces to unseat the president, Mori’s spokesman said he would relinquish these powers within a few months.
The explanation did not wash in secular and liberal circles, raising widespread fears that he sought to become Egypt’s new strongman by stealth.
More political violence erupted in December following Morsi’s announcement that a referendum would be held to approve a new constitution.
Morsi claimed it would enshrine human rights. Critics, particularly those in the Coptic Christian community, which forms about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, complained that the proposed constitution would pay far too much deference to Islamic law, offer little protection to minorities and women and, worst of all, lay the foundation for a retrogressive Islamic state.
Morsi won the referendum by a comfortable two-thirds margin, and the new constitution took immediate effect. But Mori’s opponents, led by Mohamed El Baradei – a presidential candidate and the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency – described the constitution as a “very polarizing” document that denies Egyptians freedom of religion and expression and suppresses the independence of the judiciary.
Despite Morsi’s unilateralism, observers wonder whether he and his allies can, in fact, implement their programs and policies. The bureaucracy, largely composed of secularists appointed during the Mubarak era, may well put up fierce resistance to his vision of a new Islamic Egypt.
In the meantime, tensions continue to fester. Throughout January, as lawlessness engulfed the country and open rebellion broke out in three cities along the Suez Canal, Morsi called out the army to deal with demonstrators. In the ensuing clashes, more than 50 Egyptians were killed, reminding observers of the pre-2011 days when dissent was barely tolerated. Of late, protestors have demonstrated in front of Morsi’s presidential palace in Cairo.
Such has been the turmoil that the defence minister recently issued a stark warning that political differences “on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations.”
With critics already charging that Morsi has not lived up to his pledge to represent all Egyptians, the situation is likely to grow still worse when he imposes austerity measures to cope with an economy in a tailspin.
Tourism, one of the principal sources of foreign currency, has fallen by one-third. The unemployment rate among Egyptians between the ages of 25 to 29 has risen to a catastrophic 25 per cent. Calling this figure “a socio-economic time bomb,” a former Egyptian finance minister recently observed it is especially worrisome because the popular uprising that deposed Mubarak and paved the way for Morsi was spearheaded by Egyptians in this age range.
Beyond the daunting problem of youth unemployment, which has been exacerbated by a decline in foreign investment, Morsi faces another challenge that speaks directly to Egypt’s current economic woes.
Egypt has requested a loan of $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund, but will not get it unless food and fuel subsidies to the poor, the core of Morsi’s constituency, are reduced. But with half of all Egyptians living on less than $2 per day, Morsi will be hard-pressed to comply with the IMF demand.
Morsi thus finds himself between a rock and a hard place as he attempts to govern an ancient nation torn by deep political, social and economic fissures and manifestly uncertain of its future.