Monday, July 15, 2013

Post coup Egypt: reconciliation and aid an urgent priority


© Shafiq Morton
Call it a coup by any other name, but when a duly elected government gets deposed by the military, it’s a coup.

That’s the reality of Egypt today. One of North Africa’s most populous countries is in serious turmoil; this after Muslim Brotherhood leadership was deemed unsuitable for office after a mere 12 months in power.

Egypt’s sweet “Arab Spring” has certainly turned into a sour autumn. Hope and dignity have been replaced by despair and humiliation, and tolerance has been usurped by the brutality of the re-emerged Baltaji, former Mubarak-supporting thugs.

With TV stations and publications closed down, freedom of speech has shrivelled on the bough, and NGO’s – often the organs of the most oppressed – have been effectively silenced by jail sentences.

So how could Egypt, once a bastion of a new democratic beginning, retreat so quickly into the morass of state militarism? It’s a question many have asked since President Muhammad Morsi, admittedly a colourless – if not stubbornly naïve – figurehead found his sluggish hand of national conciliation and “Roadmap” slapped away by roaring crowds.

Morsi – who took power by a slender majority – is said to have faced an Egypt polarised by “political Islam”, and a more secular constituency comprising a wide range of traditional ideologies (such as neo-liberalism and Marxism) not prepared to accept any concept of an “Islamic state”.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s extremely poor performance in terms of being able to successfully accommodate other political parties and its sluggishness in squaring up to pressing economic and social challenges, are just some of the factors said to have created unprecedented historical public outcry against Morsi’s government.

Professor Tariq Ramadan, the internationally celebrated academic (who is a grand nephew of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) has been one of the sharpest critics of the Brotherhood, and of recent events.

Whilst slating the Brotherhood for stupefying incompetency, he also claims that Mubarak was not toppled in 2011 by the people, but by the military, who merely saw the writing on the wall.

According to Ramadan, the hopeful and courageous Egyptian masses – aspiring for genuine justice and freedom – were duped into thinking that they could enjoy a civilian democracy. In a piece entitled Coup d’état, Act II he writes that the Egyptian military merely faded into the shadows and patiently waited its turn.

What is historic, he says, is that Egypt experienced two military coups in the space of three years. According to him, the Egyptian army had not returned to politics for the simple reason it had never actually left politics.

He points at army head General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi – ironically appointed by Morsi – as the obvious key player in the coup. US trained and known to Israeli intelligence, Ramadan alleges that he had been conniving all along with the US and Israel behind Morsi’s back.

Ramadan goes on to explain the position of the Salafist An-Nour party, which broke away from the Brotherhood camp and supported the generals. He says that An-Nour’s sponsorship by the Gulf States (who are firm US allies) puts it firmly into the US orbit, and makes it a victim of neo-colonial divide-and-rule policy.

Conspiracy or not, Egypt faces daunting challenges for whoever takes over the reins. Three years of political chaos, and decades of corruption, have brought the country to the brink of collapse. Poverty and food insecurity loom over the Nile like a Biblical locust plague.

According to Dr Hussen Oruch of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, dropping living standards on the back of rising food costs over the past three years has meant that 18-20 million people are already in need of help. He told me that over 20% of Egyptians lived below the poverty level.

A recent article in the UK-based Guardian (6 May) featuring Galal Amin (economics professor at the American University in Cairo) and Samir Radwan (former Finance Minister after 2011) concurs with Dr Oruch’s views.

According to the Guardian report, 25% of Egyptians are below the poverty line with a further 23% hovering just above it. Radwan admits glumly that over 50% of the population is currently impoverished.

But added to that is retreating economic growth (3%), a 60% drop in foreign exchange reserves, the closure of factories, the shrinkage of personal savings of over 50% and the Egyptian pound losing 12% against the dollar. 

Even Egypt’s tourist industry, which accounts for 11% of its GDP, has taken a hammering. A travel industry report by the World Economic Forum rated it in March as the least safe of 140 tourist destinations, even putting it behind Pakistan, Yemen and Chad.

And if those challenges aren’t enough, Egypt’s restive and expectant youth – who comprise a quarter of the population of 90 million – enjoy an unemployment rate of 24%, with females as high as 49%.

This puts into stark focus the post coup bail-out packages – totalling 13.5 billion dollars ­ – which have been put on the table by the US, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It’s a no-brainer that an economic and social implosion in Egypt would be catastrophic for regional stability.

Of course, there is the question as to the nature of the strings attached to the bail out. Will it be business as usual with Israel in the Sinai and a further re-inforcement of the Gaza blockade? Will Cairo be able to effect urgent social upliftment without corrupt officials draining the coffers? Will genuine democracy be allowed to return to Egypt?

Dr Hisham Hellyer, a Cairo-based political analyst, fills in critical detail when he says that against the background of the Brotherhood backlash, and potential dangers of sectarian extremism, Egypt’s new rulers must give clear and uncompromising signals. What Egypt needs right now, he says, is the creation of a truly pluralistic political arena with reconciliation being the most urgent national priority.