By Swapan Dasgupta
Jul 12, 2013
It is a bit like the habitual Twitter fanatic who suddenly disappears from our Web pages. For at least two years, the turbulence in Egypt has been grabbing eyeballs throughout the world, and not least in the West where people are a little more habituated to following developments in the “Middle East”.
Initially, there was unconcealed excitement over Tahrir Square and exhilaration over the role of American-accented youth who managed to put the social media in the service of democracy. Then there was a flicker of nervousness over the radical potential of the well organised. That went away after Dr Mohammed Morsi presented a picture of sweet reasonableness to both the Egyptian electorate and the world. Finally, three weeks ago, Tahrir Square erupted again and the Twitterati resurfaced, full of indignation against the creeping Islamisation of society and President Morsi’s cronyism. Suddenly the call went out, “Morsi must go”, and the usual camera crews and intrepid foreign correspondents descended once again on a choppy Cairo.
That the initial optimism over democracy being the magic wand had waned substantially was not in any doubt. Nor was there any credible denial of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had embarked on a policy of creeping acquisition: imposing orthodox social norms on a society torn between tradition and extreme Westernisation, using the patronage powers of the government to get their people into the right places, and quietly strengthening its organisation in the villages and the bazaars.
Nor was there any doubt that the Egyptian middle class was rattled by Dr Morsi’s inept handling of the economy, not least of which was unemployment and the slowdown in tourism. The more enterprising who had made hay while President Hosni Mubarak ruled have quietly begun shifting their money to Dubai and London, and many of the American-sounding youth who are regularly interviewed on TV may even have purchased one-way tickets to the United States. But for the majority of the 48 per cent who voted against Dr Morsi a year ago, there was no choice but to launch another offensive, before the Muslim Brotherhood became the unquestioned dominant force.
The most significant thing about Tahrir Square-2 was that the protests worked, and quite effortlessly. It really took a monster anti-Morsi demonstration through the streets of Cairo for the Army to crawl out of the barracks and issue a 48-hour ultimatum to the elected President. It is not surprising that
Dr Morsi chose to ignore this astonishing presumptuousness of the generals who, in any case, have never ceased to perceive themselves as the final arbiters of the national interest.
It used to be said about the heaven-born, pre-Independence Indian Civil Service that in wrapping itself in a cloak of goodness and infallibility, it couldn’t conceive “of a people who do not want to be ruled well and justly but who would prefer a rule which might be a poor thing, but their own.” The Egyptian military which had first tasted power after the coup, which deposed the corpulent King Farouk in 1954, had enjoyed uninterrupted power for more than five decades.
Yes, Col. Nasser had a certain appeal to the class of gullible Third World leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi for his secular, pan-Arabism and unreconstructed anti-Zionism. But it is always worth noting that his pseudo-radicalism was built on naked Army rule. His successor, Anwar Sadat, mercifully did away with all the socialist claptrap and prudently recognised that he would never be able to defeat Israel militarily. Consequently, he ditched the Soviet Union for Uncle Sam and began to emulate people like Field Marshal Ayub Khan, a man who the Americans once presented to the world as a role model. Mr Mubarak persisted with Sadat’s legacy, kept the military in good humour by channelling the bulk of the $1.5 billion US assistance to the military and would probably still have been ruling Egypt had he not decided that his flamboyant son should succeed him. It is worthwhile remembering that what really tilted the scales against Mr Mubarak two years ago was not the Tahrir Square carnival but the U-turn effected by the Egyptian Army.
The evidence is seemingly incontrovertible: the Army wants to have the last word in deciding who will rule Egypt. It is not that Dr Morsi was unaware of this. In the 12 months he enjoyed power, he went out of his way to build bridges with the cantonments. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Muslim Brotherhood had a longer-term strategy to repeat the Zia-ul Haq strategy in Egypt and bring about a slow Islamisation of the Army.
Unfortunately for the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr Morsi never got a chance. The Army, smarting under the ignominy that had been heaped on it for its mishandling of the post-Mubarak transition, piggybacked on the minusculity of Egyptian liberals to effect a dramatic comeback. Whether this return to life also had something to do with some discreet support from the Saudi Arabian monarchy and Emirs of the Gulf — both petrified of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pan-Islamic potential — is a matter of conjecture. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some future WikiLeak release confirms that suspicion. Any meaningful strategic input from the US can, however, be discounted. The Obama administration is strangely incapable of being decisive, even taking wrong decisions.
Thus, the world is presented with the bizarre spectacle of Muslim Brotherhood activists being mercilessly gunned down by the Army for demanding the restoration of democracy. And we have the equally unlikely spectacle of those fed on liberal American values egging on General Fatah al-Sissi and cheering the Army for saving Egypt from the tyranny of an elected majority. Yes, there is promise of elections at the end of the year and yet another “new” Constitution. What remains unstated is that the proposed restoration of civilian rule will be a facet of a guided democracy: whoever wins, the Army will still continue to rule.
Egypt is experiencing a veritable Mad Hatter’s party. Not since the Iranian Revolution of 1980 has Islamism again perched itself on the moral high ground.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist