How Do We Return Egypt to the Path of Democracy? – caabu Members briefing with Dr. H.A. Hellyer [caabu]

October 15, 2013

Caabu was pleased to host Dr H. A. Hellyer for a briefing on how to return Egypt to the path of democracy.

Dr H. A. Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings.

Dr. Hellyer started by questioning his brief: it is difficult to talk about ‘returning’ Egypt to democracy when, he argues, it had never truly been there in the first place.  Although there was no doubt the democratic cause was significantly set back by the July 3 coup, it had already been derailed long before, even under democratically elected President Morsi.

Dr. Hellyer cited a variety of reasons for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the June 2012 elections.  Their role in the revolution brought them a great deal of popular support, as did their promise of a moderate Islamic government.  Dr. Hellyer also felt though, that many had voted for them simply because their other option, Ahmed Shafik, who briefly served as Prime Minster under Mubarak, represented a return to the old regime.  Morsi was seen as a transitional president, walking Egypt through its first tentative steps towards a legitimate democracy.  However Dr. Hellyer said that this contradicted Morsi’s own vision of himself as ‘post-revolution president’ who had already delivered a fully formed Muslim Brotherhood democracy to Egypt.  As he scrambled to assert his legitimacy, he failed to embrace plurality and enact the vital reforms necessary to earn him credibility and popular support.  People lost faith in Egypt’s crumbling institutions and began to see the democratic experiment as a failure, looking instead to the strong arm of the army.  Public support of the Muslim Brotherhood went from 12% before the revolution to 60% straight afterwards and finally dropping to 15% last June.

Dr. Hellyer believed that as his support dwindled Morsi could have worked to deepen or hand over his popular mandate.  However it seems Morsi did not fully appreciate the extent to which he had lost the support of the public and, by extension, the army.  For according to Hellyer, the Muslim Brotherhood had, on balance, kept good relations with the military whilst in government. Morsi made many of the privileges the military had enjoyed under Mubarak constitutionally mandated. It also was at the army’s request that Morsi pensioned off Tantawi, former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces.

However, the overriding sense of loyalty between the army and its people cannot be underestimated.  After all given its size, they are on many levels one and the same thing.  According to Dr. Hellyer, 9 out of 10 Egyptians believe in the power of the army. The wordcoup is highly unpopular as many Egyptian’s believe the army were fulfilling the will of the people; the word revolution is used instead to refer to July 3.  Yet as Dr. Hellyer stresses there is no doubt that this was, in all technical senses of the word, a coup. This suspension of democracy has greatly hampered the country’s path towards a fully-fledged democratic government. Any semblance of democracy will be on hold until the next elections, which although they may be free, will not be fair.  The violent crackdown on Morsi’s supporters has alienated and suppressed vast swathes of the electorate.

The majority of the population still supports the military-backed interim government against the pro-Morsi camp, in spite of the excessive force used by the security forces in order to break up pro-Morsi protests, which was described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”. Dr. Hellyer expressed his fear that even though violence may have temporarily ended, the repercussions will be felt for years to come.

The post-coup scenario shows a deep and massive polarisation between the two camps, which is hampering constructive dialogue between parties and perpetuating violence. Each side must accept their portion of the blame if there is to be an end to this situation. However the military is unapologetic for its failure to protect some of its citizens and to restore democracy, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood does not accept its own failure to deliver democracy and to avoid excessive violence.  Sadly, Dr. Hellyer said that anyone outside of this paradigm becomes subject to double McCarthyism – accused of being sympathisers by opponents of both sides.

But it is essential that the new government address these divides in order to bring all sides back into the democratic process.  Above all it must up its efforts to address security issues and urgently reform the economy to bring Egypt much needed stability and foreign investment. As Dr. Hellyer said, nowadays Egypt is a place where “everybody and their mother knows how to protest”. If the new government does not address these underlying issues, that were the cause of the first revolution, there will continue to be further unrest.  Dr. Hellyer sees a long road ahead.

Source: Council for Advancement of Arab-British Understanding

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