Impressions from Egypt


Eager to get a local view on the complex and bumpy Egyptian transition process, we went to Cairo early October to meet with Egyptian researchers, academics, activists as well as foreign diplomats and journalists. Here are a few  impressions and food for thought.

 A new phase of the Transition

Egypt has entered a new phase of its transition process.  A few months ago, a critical narrative of the Nile Revolution would argue – quite convincingly – that it had all been just a cosmetic adjustment at the top (the demise and trial of H. Mubarak) leading to a much stronger grip of the military on the country (concentration of powers at the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – SCAF).

Instead, the Muslim brother leadership grew more assertive, until the day it just sent back the once feared army leaders to their barracks. This was done in quite a smooth way, suggesting a previous agreement. Now, the real question is at what price did the army accept to withdraw from public politics (for now at least)? What are the red lines, guarantees and privileges the Brothers conceded in exchange?

Against the backdrop of this power struggle, Salafists are fighting and excommunicating each other, while Liberals try to regroup around El Baradei. Young Egyptian bloggers, once courted by western chancelleries as the romantic heroes of the Revolution, feel the tide is turning. The West is now looking for “real” rooted Egyptians and is trying to befriend “liberal Islamists”.

The country’s transition is now clearly steered by the Muslim brother’s leadership. The question remains to what new stage the country is heading.

Estrangement of the constitutional process

The constitutional debate is becoming an expert’s discussion. Very few citizens are able to follow[1] or are even interested in the discussions regarding the constitutional framework, despite what is at stake. The important debate about article 36 of the constitution regarding women’s status and rights[2] did not spark more than a few protests of largely well-off and educated women from Zamalek (a wealthy neighborhood of Cairo).

The window of popular patience and focus for reshaping the country’s institutions is closing in the face of growing socio-economic discontent and security concerns.

Liberal groups (women, leftists, followers of El Baradei and religious minorities) are not finding the right ways to influence the constitutional debate, and many are resigning or just giving up. Such a renouncement would come at a high price: if no consensus is reached after a certain period, the President will have the last word on the draft constitution that will be voted by referendum. There is thus a double risk of a non-participative constitutional process for Egyptian citizens and a non-democratic, unilateral drafting of the constitution by only one political party(see HRW concerns). This would not be a healthy start for the Egyptian democracy.

“Ikhouanisation”vs. Islamisation

A progressive process of “ikhouanisation” (from “Ihkhouan”, brothers in Arabic) is taking place within the civilian institutions. Part of it is a normal course of any democratic alternation, especially when it follows decades of authoritarian rule. The Brothers are appointing new managers – sometimes regardless of their real expertise – to replace former regime cronies with trusted personnel.

But part of the opinion is alarmed at the first signs of a slow and diffuse islamisation of the public realm: new editions of school books are being printed with no images or drawings of women, radio stations that had no religious content (sport, youth programs, culture) are suddenly broadcasting religious programs, the call for prayer is spreading in the media, while trials for blasphemy seem to be on the rise.  It should be noted however that these phenomenons are also a reflection of the majority’s opinion in Egypt, which grew progressively conservative and pious under Mubarak’s rule.

Popular Diplomacy

Morsi’s subtle mix of pragmatism (towards Iran) and independence (towards Washington) seems to be more in line with the public opinion than his predecessor’s diplomacy. His strong stance against the Assad regime is also very much in tune with Egyptians’ sincere empathy for the Syrians, who are more and more seeking refuge in Egypt[4] (40 000 according to the UNHCR). Egyptians appeared, in general, proud to see their new leader at the center of attention in the international forums.

The one issue that could cause a serious dilemma for the Egyptian authorities is the policy towards a Hamas-led Gaza strip.  Intimate historical ties between Hamas and the Brothers and high expectations from the Egyptian opinion of a more “Palestinian- friendly” policy (particularly after the confirmation of the Camp David peace accords with Israel) should have led to an opening of the borders with Gaza. But it is clear for now that the Ikhouan’s strategic priority is to enforce national security in the Sinai at any cost, including re-shutting Rafah border crossing. In fact, Israeli security and terrorist concerns in the Sinai have never been met under Mubarak’s era by such a strong crack down. Beyond short-term security concerns lies another strategic preoccupation: the fear that in the end, Israel would insist on Egypt taking over the management of Gaza.

It’s the Economy, stupid

Foreign experts are probably paying more attention to the legal and political aspects of the transition than most of Egyptians citizens. Popular discontent and frustration at the lack of improvement of living conditions and the poor state of public services is mounting. In this context, the slightest increase in prices would probably bring people back in the streets. Already, sectorial strikes are mushrooming every other day: health and education sectors are particularly affected. Imagine what a reform affecting all sectors simultaneously could spark (for example a rise in oil or food commodity price). Interestingly enough, an influential Egyptian blogger told us that he opposes the Brothers more for their capitalist, liberal ideology rather than for their religious views.

Unfortunately for the government, there is little budgetary maneuver other than cutting massive energy subsidies, strip the Armed forces of some of their exorbitant financial and economic privileges (but that is probably part of a deal with the Muslim Brothers) or dismiss a chunk of employees from the bloated public sector[5]. The IMF $4.8 billion loan being discussed right now would eventually bring oxygen to the economy. However, the loan will probably be conditioned to tough structural reforms and is bound to unleash negative reactions in the Egyptian opinion which remains quite nationalistic and attached to sovereignty and national independence.

[1] According to a June 2011 report by the Council of Ministers’ Information and Decision Support Centre, nearly 27% of Egypt’s 85 million citizens are illiterate.

[2] The Islamists are suggesting to add at the end of the article “as long as it it does not contradict the rulings of Islamic Sharia.”

[4] Syrians feel safer in Egypt than in neighboring Lebanon where supporters of Assad’s regime control key positions in the State and security institutions. MEA and Egypt Air planes from Beirut to Cairo are actually booked with Syrians refugees, and the companies had to add daily flights to respond to the  demand. Syrians also prefer to stay incognito and wander free in Egypt rather than in the crowded and tightly controlled camps of Turkey and Jordan.  However, we heard in Cairo insistent rumors we could not confirm of Syrian intelligence agents kidnapping Syrian dissidents in Egypt.

[5] 5.8 million People working in public administration and around 835,000 employees of public-owned companies. They are better paid than private sector employees

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