Egypt’s Military Returns to Centre Stage

When young secular rights activists tried to defy a law issued by Egypt’s military-backed authorities to restrict protests, police put on a show of force and dispersed them in minutes.

Riot police massed outside parliament in late November, aiming water hoses at the dozens of protesters crammed on a narrow Cairo pavement. An armoured vehicle fired teargas at those who had not run away. Policemen grabbed organisers, thrashed them and hauled them into the parliament grounds.

“They were extremely aggressive and violent,” says Nazli Hussein, one of more than 20 women subjected to beatings before being dumped in the desert that night. “We are going back to rule by a terrifying state. They are entrenching a frightening, repressive state.” Six months after the popularly backed military coup on July 3 that overthrew the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, the country appears to be sliding back into full-scale authoritarianism with power reverting to the army leadership and the security services clamping down on dissent.

Yet again in the throes of an often violent transition, Egypt seems to have turned full circle since the January 2011 uprising that ended the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak and ignited hopes of a democratic future. Once again, the security agencies are resurgent, thousands of Islamists are in prison and the democracy activists who launched the revolution are harassed and branded foreign agents and saboteurs. To many, Mr Mubarak may be out of the picture, but “Mubarakism” is staging a comeback.

Bolstered by a nationalist pro-army mood encouraged by the media, the authorities have reconfigured the political landscape to the exclusion of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group, banned by court order with its members the targets of suppression. A new constitution enshrining the independence of the military from civilian scrutiny has been drafted and parliamentary and presidential elections are planned within the next six months.

With the Brotherhood sidelined and civilian parties weak, the military and security establishments are controlling the transition. There is an interim president – Adly Mansour, a senior judge – but real power resides with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defence minister who led the coup.

The army’s intervention ended what many considered a flawed, Islamist-led experiment in democracy. Mr Morsi’s leadership was seen by many as divisive, inept and laying the grounds for a monopolisation of power by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But his removal has aggravated fractures in a divided nation with little prospect of reconciliation. Both sides appear entrenched.

Public opinion is “split down the middle”, according to a September survey by the US-based Zogby Research Services: 51 per cent of those polled considered the military’s action wrong, and 50 per cent want the Brotherhood banned from politics.

But if Egyptians are divided, their neighbours in the Gulf have been quick to show which side they support. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait greeted the toppling of the Islamists with $16bn in grants, loans and petroleum products.

The lifeline has helped depleted foreign reserves which have risen to $18bn, or about three-and-a-half months’ worth of imports. It has improved business sentiment and engendered hopes of a turnround.

But business and observers fear the mix of instability, political fragmentation and weak government will preclude speedy adoption of painful reforms, including energy subsidy cuts, considered necessary to reduce wide budget deficits.

“Political developments will continue to shape the country’s macro dynamic in the coming year,” says EFG Hermes, the Cairo-based regional investment bank. A report cited “increased polarisation and the absence of visibility on reconciliation” with the Brotherhood as adding to the unpredictability.

On July 3, the Brotherhood group changed from the country’s foremost political force to a pariah organisation. Its senior leaders are detained and its structures smashed. Egyptian media calls it a “terrorist” organisation and blames the group – without evidence – for a recent surge in deadly attacks in the Sinai peninsula by Islamic jihadis targeting security forces.

Mr Morsi is on trial for incitement to murder and there are mutterings about a treason case. More than 1,000 of his supporters have been killed, most on August 14 when police stormed two Islamist protest camps leading to what Human Rights Watch called “the biggest mass killing” in Egypt’s modern history.

Despite suppression, Brotherhood supporters hold near-daily demonstrations on streets and in universities calling for the return of “legitimacy”. Police respond with teargas, arrests and sometimes birdshot and live ammunition.

“What we see now are confidence-destruction measures,” says Amr Darrag, one of few senior leaders of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice party not in prison. “Islamist broadcasters are still shut down, detentions continue and hate campaigns in the media are ongoing.”

In disarray and with its leaders in prison, the Brotherhood does not have a short-term strategy other than keeping up momentum with its protests in the hope that repression and economic hardship will increase the numbers of opponents to the regime, according to analysts.

Khalil Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, believes the authorities want to cripple the organisation before they offer to talk. He is concerned, however, that bloodshed and lack of contact with leaders could push young Brotherhood members to violence.

He says: “The Brotherhood know the use of violence would backfire and hurt them, but the heavy crackdown has alienated many younger brothers. I can tell from comments on their social networking websites that some are turning to a more hardline ideology.”

As the authorities press on with plans for new elections, the smart bet is that Gen Sisi will become the next president.

If not, diplomats and observers believe he will be the real power behind the throne.

Millions of Egyptians may have protested against Mr Morsi on June 30, but it was pressure from state institutions – the military, the judiciary, police and bureaucracy – that brought him down.

So far Gen Sisi has not ruled out running for president. He can count on the support of business and traditional pre-revolution elites, in addition to millions of ordinary citizens fed up with political upheaval and yearning for a strong leader.

Challenges await whoever emerges as president. Chief among them is providing the necessary stability for tourism and investment to take off, reversing the economic decline of the past three years.

A quarter of Egyptians live in absolute poverty and growth has fallen to about 2 per cent.

Increased repression could backfire, analysts warn. Tactics resulting in the death of a student during protests in November at Cairo university have inflamed feelings. Small campus rallies have since gained momentum and support. Stability hinges on improvements in living standards, which require substantive reforms to the economy.

In the current political vacuum with weak parties and a rift in society, no single group is seen as able to lead.

Some fear reforms, such as phasing out fuel subsidies, scaling down bureaucracy or imposing VAT, will prove difficult.

“My concern is about what happens next economically,” says a western diplomat. “Even if you have the most perfect political process, you will have a government facing the most incredible set of problems, but without much political capital to manage them. Financial support from the Gulf will not be unlimited.”

Source: The Financial Times