On 25 January 2011, Egypt saw the start of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak and supposedly ended six decades of military rule. Three years on, however, there is not much to celebrate. Indeed, after the multiple explosions that rocked Cairo yesterday, less than a week after a referendum on yet another constitution billed as yet another new dawn, the promise of democracy looks further away than ever.
The latest spasm of violence is no one-off. The attacks that began soon after the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government last July have steadily escalated in intensity, while unrest – often deadly – also continues to simmer in cities across the country.
Mr Morsi’s short-lived presidency left much to be desired, with the result he remains far from popular. But he was, nonetheless, a democratically elected leader ousted by the military at the behest of the mob. And since his fall, the country, under the stewardship of army chief and Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has slid ever more certainly backwards.
First came the bloody clearing of pro-Morsi protest camps that left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Since then, under the pretext of clamping down on terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed and its members harassed and locked up. Nor is it only Islamists who are feeling the rough edge of the new regime. So, too, are opponents of any stripe, be they secular activists, journalists, even former members of parliament. Amnesty International warns of dissent quashed, human rights trampled and violence on an “unprecedented scale”. Meanwhile, the new constitution passed by a national referendum last week not only bolsters the power of the military but also limits freedoms of expression and assembly.
The plan was endorsed by an overwhelming majority, and turnout – at about 40 per cent – was slightly higher than that for the Morsi version in 2012. But a putative No campaign was suppressed. Muslim Brotherhood supporters instituted a boycott, and vast swathes of the public, particularly in rural areas, were simply too politically alienated to get involved at all.
The vote was, of course, a poll on the treatment of Mr Morsi as much as it was on the constitution. In the aftermath, the long-running question of whether General Sisi will stand in the forthcoming presidential elections now comes sharply to the fore. There have been hints aplenty, and thousands of supporters rallied in Cairo this week, but the general is yet to throw his hat formally into the ring.
Should he do so, there can be little doubt that he will win. After three years of instability, Egyptians are desperate for a strong leader, and the general’s burgeoning cult of personality – complete with nods to nationalist hero Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser – adds to the appeal.
For all his being cut from such wearyingly familiar cloth, it is very much to be hoped that General Sisi will join the race for the presidency. It is far better that he holds power directly, with at least the possibility of democratic removal, than that he pulls strings from behind the scenes. He would also be forced to craft a coherent response to his country’s myriad problems, rather than simply lambasting those who went before. Should he fail to do so, Egyptians may prove no more forgiving of him than they were of Mr Morsi. The outlook for democracy may be far from rosy. But the genie let out of the bottle in 2011 will not easily go back in.