x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Elites are to blame for Egypt’s failed political structure

Critics who blame Egypt's 2011 revolutionaries for failing to improve the country's political system are missing some key points.


A sombre feeling overwhelms observers of Egypt's political situation. Many of them see Mohammed Morsi's ejection from the presidency in July as heralding the end of the country's political life. In contrast, supporters of the military see it as saving the nation.

But neither view is right. Egypt's political life was born almost three years ago but has suffered a series of crippling blows since then. The question is: will it be able to recover?

The January 2011 revolution was not popular. The uprising that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak certainly was, but the revolution itself, as a set of values, was not. The revolution was the domain of a small group of people.

The revolutionary camp's significance did not lie in huge percentages of the population but in its ability to stimulate, provoke and remind. The revolution did not produce a political force capable of contesting elections at a significant level but it did manage to keep the revolution at the core of Egypt's public life.

Many condemn the revolutionaries for failing to build political parties that could change the face of politics.

Many revolutionaries entered existing parties, insisting on change from within. Others created new, smaller parties. And so there was no solid revolutionary bloc that could effectively push change through the ballot box.

This assessment misses two vital points. The first is that the Egyptian political system as inherited on February 11, 2011 required a thorough overhaul. That should have been provided on that same day by the military, which at the time had such monumental support that no other institution could have resisted.

Instead, the military made only some cosmetic changes, which led to stifling the revolution's momentum in favour of measures maintaining the status quo.

Such changes were never going to be sufficient – and, indeed, the crippling of the revolution began the next month when the army and the Islamist camp decided to move forward with the military's “road map”.

The great irony of the new road map now being implemented is that if it had been followed starting in March of 2011, the political situation today might have been very different.

The second vital point is that while the revolutionary camp did not produce political parties that could change the system, neither did anyone else. Indeed, all other political forces failed abysmally in that endeavour.

Worse than that, they managed to discredit themselves tremendously in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood had managed to gain the confidence of two-thirds of Egyptian voters by February of 2012, although that figure had dropped to a low of just 19 per cent by June of this year.

The National Salvation Front (NSF), supposedly the focal point of opposition to the Brotherhood-led government, was formed in the aftermath of Mr Morsi's extralegal decree of November 2012.

As huge public protests against the decree spread, the NSF had a prime opportunity to capitalise as the public grew increasingly unhappy with Brotherhood rule.

The decree and the constitutional process that followed it were deeply destabilising. A competent opposition could have used this easy platform to campaign against the government and force it to back down.

Instead, the NSF could not mobilise more than 10 per cent of the population to vote against the constitutional referendum in December.

As far as the Egyptian population was concerned, the NSF failed in their duty as an opposition, just as the FJP failed in their duty as a governing party. The political class, as a whole, has failed to deliver a vision that could energise Egyptians.

When that is understood, it is easier to see why so many – perhaps the overwhelming majority – ran so quickly into the arms of the military. The Egyptian public has consistently regarded that institution positively, ever since the uprising period of January 2011.

Many Egyptians failed to be shocked, or to express any shock, over the August 14 death toll of several hundred people killed in the suppression of protests against the arrest of Mr Morsi.

Public opposition to the Brotherhood, disaffection with political parties, and a media campaign depicting the Brotherhood as terrorist insurgents all contributed to this complacency.

This can only be seen as yet another failure of the political elite. It has come to the point where politicians hardly matter, while the military can do no wrong.

The dynamism of Egyptian political public life has taken blow after blow since March 2011. Will that dynamism return? Will the revolution recover? In many ways the situation now is harder than it was three years ago, when Mr Mubarak ruled.

Yet, just as his system was unsustainable, so ultimately is any system that does not meet the demands of the Egyptian people. If those who control the new order wish to remain in control, sooner or later they may have to adjust to meet those demands. If they do not, there is likely to be consequences.

The question is not if the revolution will recover, but how long any Egyptian state can hope to survive with stability, if it does not uphold the dignity of citizens.

The revolution has already taught us some hard lessons about that.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate of the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution

On Twitter: @hahellyer