Hope for Egypt's future hangs by a thread

Urging Egyptians to move swiftly to hold fair elections sounds all very sensible. But it must ring pretty hollow to those Egyptians who thought they already had

There is almost nothing about the present situation in Egypt that bodes well, either in the big picture or in the detail.

In Cairo tension remains high following the deaths outside the Presidential Guard barracks on Monday, and any prospect of a government being formed very soon looks remote. Even as Hazem el-Beblawi, the 76-year-old former Finance Minister named interim Prime Minister, struggled to recruit a cabinet, the state prosecutor issued arrest warrants for senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood.

If, as has been suggested, the priority is to form a broad-based government and if, as is commonly acknowledged, one of President Morsi’s cardinal sins was not to have sought allies beyond his immediate supporters, a slew of new arrest warrants was hardly the best way to go about fostering peace and reconciliation. The Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, had already refused to join a unity government – on the not unreasonable grounds that it had led a democratically elected government that was unlawfully deposed. Threats to arrest the movement’s spiritual leaders are unlikely to speed any change of mind.   

William Hague’s statement in the Commons yesterday highlighted some of the difficulties. Urging Egyptians to move swiftly to hold free and fair elections and work towards openness, democracy and economic reform sounds all very sensible. But it must ring pretty hollow to those Egyptians who thought they had a government, elected in a free and fair vote, that was trying, however clumsily, to do exactly that.

The Foreign Secretary also skirted around the uncomfortable fact that the army had seized power in what was, to call things by their proper names, a coup. The feeling that the Western world lauds democracy elsewhere, until it produces the “wrong” result – when the army, or an autocrat, will do fine – will only have been reinforced.

And the curse will endure. Even in the unlikely event that all parties and groupings can be persuaded to take part in amending the constitution, approving it in a referendum and going to vote again in new elections some time in the new year, the authority of any new government is bound to be in question – built as it will be on the back of an army takeover.

Over the past week Egypt’s democracy was not strengthened, but weakened. After the carnage on Monday, descent into civil war seemed at times just hours away. Yet it is too soon to abandon hope. The confrontation at the Presidential Guard barracks, in which more than 50 died, unleashed anger. But it also seemed to shock all sides into stepping back from the brink. Instead of issuing new arrest warrants, the authorities should exploit this pause to offer some olive branches and start releasing detainees.

A second, more permanent, asset is Egypt’s compelling sense of national identity. Unlike many states in the region, it has a common history going back millennia; it has borders that are well defined, and there are no serious challenges from ethnic minorities. The differences are religious and political. This does not make them any less sharp, but it leaves Egypt’s national idea intact. It is something that any government needs to capitalise on. 

And third is the taste Egyptians have developed over the past two-and-a-half years for freedom and democracy, however untidy. This can be a force for good or ill, and it veers all too easily, as it did when President Morsi was deposed a week ago, into rule by a discontented and fickle mob. Such proof of popular political engagement, however, could also deter the military from the excesses to which it is prone. These are but slivers of hope for Egypt’s future, but they are all that is currently on offer.