x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Failure of the revolution is a tragedy for the whole region

Egypt needs a body to define the parameters of government, such as post-apartheid South Africa created with the Constitutional Court.

As the death toll in Cairo rose on Wednesday, a BBC interviewer asked this question: "Did the Egyptian military set out to murder people?" We do not know the answer, but it is a question which will not go away.

To anyone with experience of public-order policing, it was clear that the Egyptian security forces could not clear the mass sit-ins without terrible levels of bloodshed. This is true of any country in the world, even those with the best trained police, but more so in Egypt, where the security forces have a grim record of opening fire on protesters.

Only long negotiations and political compromise could have provided a different result. But it is hard to see who in Egypt had the moral authority to oversee such a compromise, especially when the Brotherhood was ruling out all negotiations until the ex-president was reinstated. The army was in no mood to wait.

Two years ago it would have been impossible to imagine a country as polarised as Egypt has become. A research paper published last week by the International Crisis Group reported some eye-watering comments that seemed to presage civil war. An unnamed member of the opposition National Salvation Front said the army would have to crush the Brotherhood; there was no room for it in the "new phase" of the revolution. A member of the post-Morsi presidential staff likened the Brotherhood to a "tumour".

The Morsi government was incompetent and guilty of a crude grab for power. It mistook victory at the polls for a mandate to refashion Egypt in its own image. This "winner takes all" approach is against the spirit of democracy, where the victor has to respect the views of the minority, in the expectation that one day the tables will be turned. It is even less appropriate for societies where the political system is new.

Popular participation in the five rounds of voting since the fall of Hosni Mubarak fell steadily. In the first round of the 2012 presidential election, 70 per cent took part, and in the second round, where Mr Morsi narrowly beat Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minster, the turnout had dropped to 52 per cent. Given Mr Shafik's antecedents with the old regime, the Morsi victory was hardly a ringing endorsement. When it came to the referendum on the constitution, the turnout dropped to 33 per cent in December.

Yet the Brotherhood chose to interpret these slim victories as a green light to do what it wanted and trample the claims of the minority. In this it is not alone in the Middle East. In Turkey the electoral popularity of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has led to street protests in Istanbul against his elected "dictatorship". In Iraq since the US invasion of 2003, the country's Shia majority has been seizing the levers of power, to such an extent that the removal of the current prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, is all but unthinkable. It is hardly surprising that, given these examples, the Brotherhood rushed to consolidate its power against a background of shrinking electoral support.

While the Brotherhood was dizzy with its entitlement to power, the mood among the secular parties, the so-called liberals who led the revolution against Mr Mubarak, was going the other way. Egypt's high illiteracy rate came to be seen as a barrier to the triumph of the progressive forces. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front, said in December that the country was fatally split - 30 per cent Islamist, one third illiterate and 36 per cent "educated and qualified people". The message of the Muslim Brotherhood, offering stability and the application of God's word, was very attractive to people who, he said, could not make much of a very sophisticated constitution.

Liberals should defend the rights of all voters to have their say. But the feeling that the uneducated masses were pushing Egypt to an Islamist dictatorship is what led the liberals to fall into bed with the army. The latter years of Mubarak rule are now seen as a golden era. It remains to be seen how these liberal weather vanes will thrive under General Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

With the Brotherhood crying for the return of "legitimacy" and many of the liberals cheering on the generals, all talk of early elections is so much hot air. If Egypt is to progress towards democracy it needs a strong and respected body to hold power. Up until now this has, perversely, been the army.

Egypt now needs a body - not so self-interested as the army - to define the parameters of government, such as post-apartheid South Africa created with the Constitutional Court. The American constitution is not much in fashion at the moment, given its tendency to create gridlock. But it has achieved its goal in preventing any one faction grabbing all the power. This may be more suitable for a rich continental power such as the US than the Nile valley. But it proves that voting is not everything: first the country needs to decide what sort of government it wants.

The failure of the Egyptian revolution is a tragedy for the whole region. An Arab success in combining Islamism and democracy is much needed. For the western powers, it will only add to their confusion, which is all too apparent in Syria. Do they support the people or military regimes? They do not know, but ultimately they will follow their own interests. And if that means living with a regime that launched a blood-drenched military-style operation against protesters in the capital city, they will probably do that.



On Twitter @aphilps