SIX months after a populist coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, their first freely elected president, Egyptians are again heading to the polls. Their choice is a simple yes or no. Should the referendum that concludes on January 15th endorse a newly drafted constitution, as is widely expected, presidential and parliamentary elections will follow, probably in that order. By early summer, Egypt could reach the end of the “road map” laid out by its current military-backed regime, and realise at last the dream of a stable democracy that inspired its revolution in January 2011. Such is the scenario rosily painted by Egypt’s now nearly monochrome media.
But things are not so simple. A majority probably supports the country’s present rulers, or at any rate is exhausted by three years of turbulence and yearns for calm at any price. Though Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood will angrily reject the very notion of a referendum, some Islamists, notably the leading lights of the al-Azhar mosque and university in Cairo, are promoting a yes vote. So does the Salafist Nour party, though it espouses a more puritanical version of Islam than does the Brotherhood. Egypt remains starkly polarised, tense and embittered.
For the Islamists who backed Mr Morsi, the reasons are plain. Just a year ago, following their victories in parliamentary and presidential elections, they seemed poised to assert full control over the most populous and pivotal Arab state. Now, after waves of mass arrests and successive, brutal police actions that have left hundreds killed, the Brotherhood has been chased underground.
At least the top two tiers of its tightly disciplined command structure—close to 1,000 men from a total membership of perhaps as many as 500,000—are now in prison or exile. Dozens of senior leaders, including Mr Morsi, face trial and long sentences on charges ranging from murder to espionage. More than 700 have had their personal assets frozen, impoverishing their families, while the state has taken control of more than 1,000 Brotherhood-affiliated schools and charities.
But the vengeful return of the security apparatus that dominated Egypt for 60 years before the revolution is casting wider fears. As before, the police, the public prosecution service, the courts and the state-owned or -influenced media are again working in lockstep to silence or discredit the regime’s critics. A particular target, of late, has been the non-Islamist youth activists most responsible for instigating the uprising three years ago.
Not only have half a dozen prominent revolutionaries been jailed or sent to trial on flimsy charges. With few, notable exceptions, Egypt’s press has taken to picturing last year’s heroes as today’s enemies of the state. One “patriotic” private television channel has aired intercepted phone calls between well-known activists. Though the conversations revealed nothing nefarious, the fact that the tapes could have been supplied only by security agencies has fuelled concern of a return to widespread government eavesdropping.
This is precisely the point, says Bassem Youssef, a popular satirist whose ridicule undermined Mr Morsi but has not been tolerated by the current regime, either. People may laugh at clumsy attempts to defame dissidents, he argued in a recent column, just as people laugh at overzealous efforts to hunt out Brotherhood “symbols” in schoolbooks or in an advertisement featuring finger-puppets. But the very absurdity of the witch hunt helps generate fears of state power.
Don’t make the same mistake
Just as Mr Morsi frittered away his initial popularity by riding roughshod over secular critics, so Egypt’s current regime risks losing much of its support by overplaying its hand. Yet to the dismay of liberals, including an outnumbered few inside Egypt’s government who have argued for conciliation and restraint, the Brotherhood and its allies keep handing pretexts to the regime’s powerful “eradicationist” faction.
Obstinately refusing to accept their fall from grace, the Brotherhood and its supporters continue to stage daily protests. Though mostly peaceful, the disruptions breed more resentment than sympathy. They have also been punctuated by violence, generally aimed at security installations, such as a bomb in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on December 24th that killed 16 people. In response to that attack, Egypt’s cabinet officially declared the movement to be a banned terrorist organisation, despite a notable lack of evidence and a more credible claim of responsibility from a jihadist group implicated in previous bombings.
The drumbeat of violence, accompanied in Egypt’s media by fawning praise for the forces of order, inspires yearnings among many for the emergence of an authority figure, not unlike past presidents-for-life. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who led the coup, has so far shied from declaring whether he will run for president. But such is Egypt’s political disarray that the soft-spoken general might well consider that this is the time to take command from the front, rather than from the rear.
Source: The Economist