Allies for democracy? Or not?

Nearly a year after the 25 January revolution, Egypt is in the midst of turmoil. On the brink of civil unrest and economic collapse, there seems to be no end in sight. A nation full of hope, seemingly on the road to democracy and prosperity during the early weeks following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, is now plagued with doubts. A lot of the blame has been put on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for its erratic rule, which resulted in the complete mismanagement of the transitional period until the election of the parliament and the president. However, many Egyptians believe that the radicalism of the revolutionary youth is to blame for the outbursts of violent confrontation, and, in spite of mounting evidence of serious human rights violations by the military, Egyptian society is torn between pragmatic denial or apathy and the honorable confrontation of the truth.

It has become apparent that the SCAF is not willing to completely let go of power as it tries desperately to ensure that the interests of the military are protected either de facto or through special provisions in the new constitution. This has been met with resistance from Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, as they seek to cautiously rise to power in the wake of their resounding success in the parliamentary elections. Tensions between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood are bound to surface as their future interests collide. It sometimes appears that the SCAF and the Brotherhood are acting in concert; however, this convergence of interests is temporary. The SCAF is keen on organizing an efficient elections process to improve its reputation and solidify its position internally and internationally. The Brotherhood is adamant that the elections proceed at any cost in order for them to secure a parliamentary majority and at last achieve the legitimacy that has eluded the organization for nearly 80 years. However, as this process draws to a close, without a tacit agreement to split power with a mutually agreeable president acting as a buffer between those two significant players in Egyptian politics, confrontation is inevitable. There are several key phases in the democratic transition process, and although the interests of the SCAF and the Brotherhood are aligned in the current phase of the process, the potential for fallout cannot be ignored in the coming phases, especially during the drafting of the constitution and the determination of the composition and powers of the post-elections government.

Doubtful that the SCAF will willingly handover power, disgusted at the practices of the SCAF — especially violence and human rights violations — and frustrated that the electoral process has left them without a real say in Egypt’s future, the revolutionary youths are now back in the streets. However, this time around, the youths are unable to secure meaningful support from the masses. In fact, it is undeniable that the majority of Egyptians are either indifferent or against the demonstrations, even sometimes choosing to turn a blind eye to obvious atrocities by the military. Mubarak’s regime, which lasted almost 30 years, managed to wrong so many Egyptians that the possibility of ousting him ignited hope for change among millions of Egyptians, crossing geographic, class, political and religious boundaries. For many people, the SCAF, on the other hand, is equivalent to the military, the cornerstone of the Egyptian state, and the last somewhat-properly functioning state-run institution. Amid fears of a failed state and a fragmented society, many Egyptians are willing to tolerate transgressions and even atrocities by the SCAF. In this type of environment, the revolutionary youths, mostly liberal and leaning to the left in a far more conservative society, are becoming more and more condemned to the fate of Sisyphus, compelled to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Sadly, this has entailed suffering death, injury, persecution, military trial, brutality — especially against females — and worst of all, character assassination.

Strikingly, due to ideological differences and built-up mutual doubts, the revolutionary youths and the Islamists are involved in bitter media battles, with the youth accusing the Islamists of betraying the cause of the revolution, especially the Brotherhood, and the Islamists countering by accusing the demonstrators of undermining stability and democracy. These mutual doubts, and the resulting bitterness and frustration, defy logic, as any neutral observer would conclude that the youths ignited the revolution while the Brotherhood, informally and then formally joining the cause, ensured it was not crushed.  Unfortunately, the alliance that brought Mubarak down is collapsing very fast. The revolutionary youths, without popular support or even informal support from the Islamists, are struggling to create momentum against the SCAF, and without outbreaks of unnecessary violence by security forces and/or the military, the youth are largely alone in a fight against a far-stronger adversary. On the other hand, if the youth are crushed within the coming few weeks, confrontation with the SCAF will be inevitable, and the Islamists will run the risk of the military turning against democracy, as was the case in Algeria in the 1990s, or extracting huge concessions from them to avoid such a scenario. Without the support of the youth, who are capable of transcending narrow interests and petty ideological differences, the SCAF could be viewed, both inside and outside the country, as undermining the power of the Islamists as opposed to undermining democracy itself.

In short, the youths need the support of the Islamists to corner the SCAF, while the Islamists need the support of the youths to make their fight about democracy and not about power. Both parties should reach a mutual understanding, with the Islamists tolerating the more radical approach of the revolutionary youths, and the latter recognizing that the Brotherhood, in particular, cannot ignore political considerations. Otherwise, the SCAF is likely to crush the revolution, and then concentrate on strangling the nascent democracy and solidifying its power by marking the Islamists as a power-hungry ideological threat to stability and the civil nature of state and society. It could be that the Brotherhood is inclined to believe it will be in a position of relative power and legitimacy after the elections draw to a close; however, it is probably underestimating the ramifications of the SCAF being able to crush the more radical idealistic core of the revolution that brought Mubarak down.    

Mohamed Gabr is a lawyer and member of Adl Party

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