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Michael Jansen: Where Egypt stands now
February 02, 2018
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The Egyptian authorities sealed off Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25th, the seventh anniversary of the launch of the 18-day mass uprising that toppled the country’s 30-year President Hosni Mubarak. During intervening years, thousands rather than millions of Egyptians poured into Cairo’s streets to protest against Mubarak’s elected successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, and current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. These days, however, gatherings of more than 10 without permits are proscribed and Sisi is set to stand for re-election on March 16th-28th. He marked the anniversary of the rising that brought him to power by attending the annual event honouring the country’s police.

Police Day was also observed on that fateful day seven years ago when a group of activists called on social media for demonstrations in Cairo against Mubarak’s corrupt and repressive rule. The activists expected the usual turnout: 50 at one square and, perhaps, 150 in Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands turned up. In following days in cities and towns across the country, hundreds of thousands joined demonstrations which ended in joyous celebrations on February 11th when Mubarak stepped down under orders from the military.

Tahrir Square was the throbbing heart of the uprising, dubbed a “revolution,” by optimistic Egyptians demanding, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” Egyptians of all backgrounds — rich, poor, educated and illiterate, young and old — thronged to Tahrir day after day. Excited, happy, peaceful people, determined to oust Mubarak and his corrupt cronies. Elderly women in flowered print dresses brought folding stools and sat in circles chatting. Activists set up a stage and loud speakers and invited anyone — everyone — to address the crowds. Lawyers, judges, doctors, taxi drivers, bankers, housewives, teachers, street children, and university professors took part in the protests. Egyptians were proud to be Egyptians.

Supporters dispatched youths with bicycles into the square, bags filled with containers of cooked food hanging from handlebars. Men lugged boxes of plastic water bottles for protesters and journalists who stayed all day and late into the night. Artists painted signs and banners laid out on the pavement. Physicians opened field hospitals for demonstrators wounded by police action. The sun was high in the sky, the wind soft; chants of the “revolutionaries” were loud and clear. Campers set up tents on the traffic island at the centre of the square and remained over night. Egyptians were determined to never lose control of Tahrir. Teenage boys on the clean up committee collected rubbish in garbage bags for collection by pick-up trucks. After the February 2nd assault on protesters in Tahrir by horse and camel riding Mubarak thugs, youths gathered plastic staves from the building site next to the square and dug up paving blocks from the roadbed to defend the square from further attacks.

The security forces responded with brutality, shooting with birdshot, beating, and blasting with water cannon men, women and children. At least 846 died, thousands were wounded and arrested. Mubarak wrongly believed he could outlast the uprising until the army command told him to go. A former air force commander, he handed over to the generals rather than the revolutionaries. Since then the generals have exercised power. At first the revolutionaries protested; the generals held on.  

They tolerated free and reasonably fair parliamentary polls and Morsi’s election to the presidency. The Brotherhood mistakenly thought its leaders could rule in tandem with the generals. Morsi behaved as an autocrat and did nothing for the people. He was overthrown by the 2011 Arab Spring partnership of mass protests and the generals a year and a month after he took office. Morsi’s fall precipitated a Brotherhood revolt and a violent campaign by Daesh affiliates in Egypt’s cities and the Northern Sinai Province. When Sisi stood for the presidency in May 2014, he was elected by a landslide as the man who could bring security and rescue the country’s collapsed economy. 

Sisi initiated a crackdown not only on the Brotherhood but also on activists who orchestrated the uprising that, ultimately, put him in power. His government also adopted the strategies laid down by the International Monetary Fund to secure financial aid. Egypt cut subsidies on bread and fuel, floated its currency, carried out structural reforms, and encouraged private business and tourism. However, the government did not meet pledges to provide schools, hospitals and social services for the poor.

 Instead, Sisi opted for mega-projects, beginning with the construction of an $8.2 billion second Suez Canal with the objective of increasing traffic and enhancing revenues. So far, the results have been disappointing. Last December Sisi inaugurated a new administrative “capital” to replace Cairo. The new city, located in the desert between Cairo and Suez, is meant to be completed between 2020-22 at a cost of $45 billion. Critics of these high-profile projects argue the money could be better spent on refurbishing Cairo’s neglected slum neighbourhoods, tackling pollution, and resurfacing roads.

The “Sisi mania” that energised voters to go to the polls during the 2014 presidential election has given way to popular apathy and negativity. Rivals who put themselves forward as candidates to stand against Sisi have been excluded by the electoral commission, detained, or compelled to drop out by threats and pressure. Sisi has the backing of the Salafist Nour party and the centrist Wafd, Egypt’s oldest political party. Its head Sayyid al-Badawi had proposed himself as a candidate but the party voted not to nominate him and is backing Sisi.

The post-uprising period has not only reverted to the final years of the Mubarak era but has become more repressive. Several prominent figures have called for a boycott of the election and for the people to refuse to recognise the results. Signatories included moderate fundamentalist Abdel Moneim Abol Fatouh, former anti-corruption watchdog Hisham Genena, and former parliamentarian and rejected candidate Muhammad Anwar Sadat, nephew of the assassinated president of the same name. Consequently, the election could be a two-candidate race between Sisi and Moussa Mustafa Moussa, head of al-Ghad party, if Moussastays the course. This is doubly ironic. In 2014, Sisi stood against one rival, Hameen Sabahi, who won only three per cent of the vote due to “Sisi mania.” In 2005, al-Ghad founder Ayman Nour stood against Mubarak, securing seven per cent. Nour was jailed for more than four years until released under pressure from former US President Barack Obama.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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