Adrian Hamilton: Don't assume that Egypt's uprising has failed

World View


We have expected too much of the Arab Spring and are now in danger of becoming too pessimistic about it. Libya, accoding to a report by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has descended into a state of violence as bad as under Colonel Gaddafi. Egypt has, meanwhile, witnessed the resumption of protests, and the brutality of its suppression as oppressive as during President Mubarak's time.

But then much of the violence in Libya can be put down to the way foreign intervention served to promote the civil war there. At least there is a change in regime and the possibility of a better political framework for the future.

It is Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state and its most influential, where the disappointment in failed expectation seems highest, because the hopes were greatest. Instead of applauding a people ready to take to the streets again and risk their lives to oppose the military, we seem more obsessed with what has gone wrong than the spirit that survives. It's as if we wanted to be reassured in the view that the Arabs are hopeless and their region doomed to everlasting stagnation and tyranny. The Today programme this week gloomily declared that last December a street-seller who had set himself on fire started an uprising which had now ended in failure.

No it hasn't. The suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid was indeed the spark that set off the Arab conflagration, but it happened in Tunisia and led within weeks to the fall of the regime of President Ben Ali after a quarter of a century of autocratic rule. Ten months later there were elections in which the people voted freely for a constituent assembly which will set the country's future.

No one should pretend that everything is rosy in Tunisia. It isn't. Youth unemployment remains high, the old elites go on, particularly in the commercial world. But its example is worth remembering when it comes to Egypt. As in Egypt, the Tunisians faced the problem of the continuation of the old rule following the fall of Ben Ali. It was renewed street protests which resulted in the disbanding of the security forces, the dismemberment of Ben Ali's party and the banning of its senior members (thousands of them) from taking part in elections at the end of last month.

Those elections, it is true, are for a constituent assembly rather than for a government, but that assembly does have unfettered powers to appoint an interim cabinet. More important, it has the authority to rewrite the constitution in whichever way it wants, bringing the army and security services under full democratic control.

Egypt isn't the same. Arguably, the Egyptians should have taken to the streets as soon as the army showed signs of resisting control. The question now is whether to continue to hold the parliamentary elections due on Monday or to cancel or delay them, particularly now that the military has said it will bring forward presidential elections a year to next July.

The Tunisian experience would suggest not to delay, let alone cancel next week's vote. If you want change now, you need early elections, however flawed. If you want them to make a real difference, then you should, as the Tunisians did, give the new parliament powers to change the structure and put the military back under democratic control. That's what the protesters need to insist on. Presidential elections are still too far away. Who wants an all-powerful president in any case? That's how the Arab nations got to this state.

Beware Barroso's plea for eurobonds

Chancellor Merkel is right to say that it is too early to consider introducing eurozone bonds now. Either too early or too late. If the idea had been mooted at the beginning of the troubles, it might have flown. You could even have envisaged a more committed UK agreeing to issue part of its own debt in them. But now it would require not just the support of the German population, which is not forthcoming, but a degree of economic centralisation and direction which is simply not there.

Which is why José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, is so keen on them. Contrary to the UK view, the Commission is not on the rampage in this crisis. It is in a fight for its life against the growing authority of the EU President, the assertion of power by the French and Germans, and its own irrelevance on most economic and foreign policy issues.

Bonds are seen as the weapon of reassertion by Barroso. If Cameron had any sense, he'd be backing Merkel on this one.

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