The tussle for Egypt’s future
AMID reports of open combat in parts of Damascus, it must be immensely gratifying for Egyptians that their transitional battles do not involve the use of firearms.
Although hundreds of lives were lost, the confrontation never approached the dimensions of a civil war — which is how the Red Cross has lately characterised the Syrian situation.
A primary reason for the disparate course of events in the two countries is that Egypt’s armed forces decided to take the sting out of largely peaceful anti-government protests by dispensing with the services of Hosni Mubarak, who, after 30 years in power, inevitably bore the brunt of popular displeasure.
It is unknown whether the Syrian army, whose support has been crucial to Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, has contemplated any move along those lines. Given the extent to which the Assad clan is embedded in the power structure, it would inevitably have been much trickier. At this stage, however, the question is probably academic; after so much bloodshed, it is unlikely that such a gesture would any longer suffice as a palliative.
The short-term prospect is that of bloody chaos, with a senior defector from the Syrian regime — Nawaf Fares, the former ambassador to Baghdad — warning this week that an increasingly desperate Assad would be inclined to use chemical weapons. Fares also aired the unlikely claim that Damascus coordinated a series of bombings across the country with Al Qaeda. It can only be hoped he is wrong on both counts, although American and Israeli officials have been quoted as saying Assad’s forces have been moving stockpiles of chemical weapons out of storage facilities.
While the regime’s actions over the past year leave precious little scope for giving it the benefit of the doubt, the aims and inclinations of the rebel forces also remain murky, and Syrian minorities are understandably apprehensive about the future. A similar trend can be witnessed in Egypt, where some Coptic Christian representatives last Sunday boycotted a meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the grounds that she was advancing the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood by upholding the concept of civilian supremacy in a democratic set-up.
Officially, this was the tone struck by Clinton in meetings with Mohamed Morsi, the newly elected president, and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf). There are no transcripts of what was actually said, but a US official described her talks with Morsi as “candid and cordial”, which sounds like diplomatic jargon for polite disagreement, while Tantawi, shortly after his encounter with Clinton, declared at a military ceremony: “Egypt will not fall. It is for all Egyptians, not for a certain group — the armed forces will not allow that.” (If the American visitor paid a courtesy call on the toppled tyrant she described 18 months ago as a family friend, it went unreported).
No one is in any doubt about the identity of the “certain group” Tantawi had in mind, and Scaf made its intentions reasonably clear in the weeks before Morsi was sworn in by underscoring its right to veto constitutional provisions it did not agree with and by declaring it would not countenance any civilian interference in military affairs. It also endorsed — and may well have instigated — the Supreme Constitutional Court’s dissolution of parliament on the grounds that party-affiliated candidates contested seats intended for independents.
The parliament, elected at the turn of the year, had an Islamist majority, with the Brotherhood constituting the largest single bloc. Its legality could surely have been challenged earlier, and its fate leaves in doubt the status of the constituent assembly chosen by the parliamentarians.
Morsi made a half-hearted attempt to defy the dissolution, but the parliament met last week just for five minutes, during which it agreed to appeal the verdict. Beyond that he has broadly pursued a pragmatic course, making no effort to challenge the military and accepting the inevitability of Tantawi continuing as defence minister, a post he held for 20 years under Mubarak.
Morsi has also agreed to honour all of Cairo’s existing international agreements, including — implicitly — the treaty with Israel that made Egypt a pariah in the Arab world for so many years. A spokesman for the president announced early on that of the two vice-presidential posts, one would go to a woman and the other to a Coptic Christian, in what was clearly an effort to defuse suspicions of an Islamic fundamentalist set-up. Morsi has also formally resigned from the Brotherhood.
On the face of it these are gratifying steps, but suspicions remain, and it will take a great deal more to convince sceptics that Islamist majorities in Arab parliaments ought not to arouse any more concern than Christian Democratic majorities in European parliaments. It is not enough for the Brotherhood to make the right sorts of noises. It needs to demonstrate that it means what it says. After all, just last year it had vowed to sit out the presidential election.
At the same time, the quality of Egyptian democracy will be impossible to judge as long as military supremacy goes unchallenged. A non-confrontational approach would be ideal in this respect, possibly a gradual attrition of political power rather than a sudden transformation. But such a process would necessitate recognition on the army’s part that the role it has effectively played for the past 60 years cannot remain unchanged. The present hierarchy evidently does not see things this way, but there are hopeful indications of a somewhat different perspective among younger officers.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is very much a part of the anti-Assad revolt, was reportedly buoyed by Morsi’s inauguration, and the latter reciprocated the sentiment by pledging moral support for the rebels. No surprise there. But as long as civilian-military tensions remain resolved, wiser Egyptians may also be inclined to view events in Syria as a cautionary tale. There’s plenty of cause to hope that the worst-case scenario won’t come to pass, but there’s no harm in keeping in mind what it would possibly entail.