Whatever happened to Egypt's spring?
It is two years to the day since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak began. But far from heralding a bright new dawn, for many things are worse than ever
Thursday 24 January 2013
The pyramids emerge serene from the morning mist in Giza. It is a majestic and awe-inspiring sight. But there is one thing missing: tourists.
Tourism is Egypt's economic lifeline. But after two years of political turmoil following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, and with Tahrir Square once again the scene of protests as Egyptians mark the second anniversary of the revolution, the economy is in freefall. After the heady euphoria of the people's revolt, Egyptians are disillusioned with their Islamist rulers and waiting in vain for their lives to improve under President Mohamed Morsi, accused of failing to fulfil the goals of the revolution: bread, freedom and social justice.
There is the question of real justice, too. More than 800 people were killed in the ultimately doomed attempt to crush the uprising that swept Mubarak from power. Yet no one from his government has been brought to book.
The former President himself was jailed for life last year for ordering the killings, but his sentence was overturned and he now languishes in his cell, his health failing. More than $700m in Swiss bank accounts linked to his entourage has yet to be returned to Cairo. His sons, charged with corruption, have been cleared because their alleged crimes took place more than 10 years ago. The list goes on.
This week Amnesty International lamented the inaction, saying that "by not ensuring the perpetrators are punished, President Morsi is doing little to distance himself from decades of abuses".
A small group of mainly Egyptian tourists is waiting outside the entrance to the pyramids. Aziz abu Aziz stands disconsolately outside his souvenir store. Under Mubarak, he employed 12 people. Today he has only four. Several of the shops on his street are shuttered. The visitors have gone. "If things calm down, this year could be very good," he says. But these days only "two to four" tourists show up for a guided tour of the pyramids, compared to 100 to 150 before the revolution.
Abdul, a tourist guide who shows visitors round in a carriage drawn by a scrawny horse, says: "There used to be good money. But not now. Morsi has done nothing for the people. We got rid of Mubarak because he did nothing for the poor people. Now Morsi is like Mubarak."
Mr Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in last June's presidential election, triggered a new wave of street clashes last November by granting himself unchecked powers to ensure the passage of a draft constitution. Although he quickly backed down, he was able to ram through in a referendum the controversial document put together by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly. The constitution has been widely criticised for its failure to reflect fundamental freedoms, and for the lack of broad support from Egypt's political elite which would have ensured a consensus.
The President's actions have led some commentators to brand him a "new pharaoh". But "that's not a word in our dictionary any more," said a seasoned Egyptian observer. "That could only happen if the police and army joined up with the Muslim Brotherhood to take the country down an authoritarian path again. But I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood has that intention."
Ali, a doctor, sees things differently. "We are under occupation by a group of ideologues," he says.
Political scientist Mostafa-Elwi Saif says the Muslim Brotherhood is good at winning elections thanks to years of grass-roots organisation while the movement was banned, but incompetent in government. "They lack experience in decision-making, they have never had any experience in running the regime," he says in his spartan 2nd floor office in Cairo university. But he, and others, are equally critical of the liberal opposition, now grouped in a National Salvation Front, founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Front has vowed to compete in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for the spring, as a coalition to challenge the machine of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egyptian observers all suggest that because of its nationwide appeal, particularly in conservative rural areas, the Muslim Brotherhood – and the extremist Salafists who could number seven million in a country of 82 million – would win any election.
"One of the biggest problems is that the opposition is completely fragmented," says Mahmoud Karem, who was secretary-general of the country's human rights council from 2010 until his resignation last month. He was kept in his post by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Dr Karem remains concerned about the lack of clear human rights provisions in the constitution. "There's a great deal of worry about the rights of women, children, and Copts [the Christian minority which has fallen victim to a series of sectarian attacks].
He says that "the key to the survivability of the regime" is whether Mr Morsi will agree to amend the constitution in response to the political furore it generated. The continuing unrest reflects what Mr Karem calls the "horrible polarisation" of society, between the Islamists and the secular liberals. "There is a lack of trust."
But there have been concrete economic consequences from the uncertainty: in addition to the collapse of tourism, the Egyptian pound has sharply declined in value. Five billion dollars in foreign investments have been pulled out of Egypt over the past six months.
The government is still trying to negotiate a $4.8bn loan with the International Monetary Fund, but Egyptians know that any deal will result in higher prices, and the reduction of state subsidies, affecting the majority who live under the poverty line. One of Mr Morsi's more notable U-turns was to announce tax increases on commodities and services last month only to annul them hours later. "The government doesn't know the right course to correct the economic policy," says Dr Saif. Some Egyptians who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood believe that the government's economic policy is not Islamic enough. The movement was originally opposed to an IMF loan then changed its mind. "It's business as usual," complains a former supporter of the movement, who declined to be identified. "They won't challenge American hegemony. They talk about Sharia but the policies don't follow. They just have slogans."
What happens next? Right now, they are worried about the next two days, with fears rising about further violence. With the once-hated police now described by Egyptians as being "on holiday", people have taken security into their own hands.
Ali, the doctor, keeps a Browning automatic in his house in a gated compound in a wealthy Cairo suburb. "Everybody's armed to the teeth," he says. Where do the weapons come from? Libya, of course.
Egypt's key players
The deposed president was sentenced to life imprisonment in June last year for ordering the killings of pro-democracy protesters during the uprising, but the ruling was overturned earlier this month. A new trial is expected to commence in April.
Mubarak’s former interior minister was also sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the bloodshed, but the ruling was similarly overturned. He is also serving a separate 12-year jail sentence for corruption.
Alaa and Gamal Mubarak
Corruption charges against Hosni Mubarak’s sons were dropped in June 2012. The judge said “the case had lapsed” because the alleged crime took place more than 10 years ago.
The former secretary-general of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) was accused of masterminding the assault on Tahrir Square protesters on 2 February 2011 which left several protesters dead. He was acquitted in October, along with 23 other former senior officials. He faces separate corruption charges.
The former information minister and close Mubarak aide has been blamed for the spread of false information about protesters in the early days of the uprising. He was convicted of misusing public funds in 2011 and sentenced to seven years in prison. The ruling was overturned, and an appeal is underway.
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