Feeble leader who lit the fuse for massacre

Published in The Daily Mail (August 15th, 2013)

What’s happened since the Arab Spring?

Those heady days of early 2011 feel a long way off now. After the uprising in Tunisia, Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak and, with the help of the military, ousted the regime that had governed for 30 years.

Shambolic elections in June last year handed power to Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who won with the support of moderates unable to back his rival, a military figure prominent under Mubarak. The well-organised ‘Brothers’ also swept parliamentary elections.

Morsi turned out to be an aloof, bumbling and incompetent leader. Instead of pressing ahead with a proper democracy, he forced through a constitution that alarmed secularists and appointed cronies to key posts. In his most incendiary act, he gave the job as governor of Luxor to a militant linked to the 1997 massacre of 62 people, mainly tourists.

Perhaps most importantly, he was seen as doing little to solve chronic economic problems, made worse as foreign investors fled for safer havens.

Things became so bad that when Egyptians were asked to pick the public figure they most respected as leader, a prominent comedian won twice as many votes as the president.

How was Morsi ousted?

In April, five friends began a petition calling on the president to quit, aiming to collect 15million signatures by June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s election. Boosted by social media, their campaign spread rapidly and they claimed 22 million signatures.

This spurred Egyptians to take to the streets again. On July 1, the military gave Morsi an ultimatum  of two days to satisfy the public’s demands. Displaying his usual lack of compromise, Morsi insisted he was the legitimate leader so he was deposed on July 3.

General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, head of the armed forces, went on TV to say judges would revise the new constitution and promise new elections.

Was it a coup?

Yes. Morsi was an elected president ejected at the point of a gun by soldiers. A recent poll claimed only one in four Egyptians supported the overthrow, with nearly two-thirds opposed. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood see the coup as the latest in a long line of attempts to eradicate political Islam.

However, the military action was supported by the head of the Christian Coptic Church, leading Islamic authorities, senior opposition figures and even hardline Islamists who fell out with their one-time ally, as well as at least 10million protesters on the streets.

So who are the good guys?

This is hard to discern, beyond a handful of human rights activists. As one academic said, Egypt’s politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats

The army remains a brutal and shadowy force. It is often seen as a state within the state, even running firms accounting for a quarter of the economy. Sisi is an ex-spy chief who defended officers after they subjected female protesters to virginity tests. He also appears to be aping the hardline president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized the Suez Canal in 1956.

Yet the army is still the most trusted institution in this shattered nation; most of the 84million population just want political and economic stability.

Could Egypt collapse like Syria?

As more blood flows, and divisions grow daily, the only certainty is that more tension lies ahead for a strategically crucial country that is home to one in four Arabs. This is an alarming prospect: Egypt has a pivotal place at the heart of the Middle East powder keg, sitting at the crossroads of Africa with Asia and with immense influence across the Islamic world.

Sisi has pledged a path to democracy and promised not to exclude anyone. But the generals are clearly tightening their clampdown, forcing the Muslim Brotherhood back into its role of underground political struggle – and many believe they intend to retain power.  Yesterday’s declaration of a state of emergency was an ominous echo of Mubarak, who used just such a measure to crush dissent.

Given rising tensions combined with savage re-pression, there are growing risks of the sort of lethal implosion seen in Syria. Already Christians have seen villages attacked, churches defaced and families forced  to move.

Many fear events in the unruly Sinai region, where festering violence has exploded into something close to full-blown insurgency with routine killings, kidnaps and attacks by jihadis on police stations, could be a taste of what is to come across the rest of the country.

Comparisons are being made with Algeria, where the army cancelled  an Islamist victory in the  polls and sparked one of the most savage civil wars of recent times.

So what should the West be doing?

The West’s influence is more limited than we like to think. America pours in $1.3billion of annual aid but is loathed by many Egyptians, while even this huge sum pales beside the $20billion given by the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia since the fall of Mubarak.

Washington’s refusal to condemn Morsi’s overthrow – partly because under US law calling it a coup cuts off aid – looked hypocritical after so many years promoting democracy in the region. Britain looked similarly shameful when following the US position like a poodle.

Tony Blair, having invaded Iraq to impose democracy and now playing the part of Middle East peacemaker, supported the coup for supposedly bringing about stability. His words look even more hollow today than they did last month.

Western leaders must start displaying some principles. They need to be clear in their demand for the restoration of democracy and support for human rights. These are tremulous times for Egypt. But there is little hope of peace and prosperity until it confronts widening fissures over faith and freedom.

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