x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Egypt for 2012: Year will define country divided on many axes

As the Arab world's most populous country and the root of many religious and cultural influences, what happens here will affect the region on issues such as the relationship between Islam and the state.

Egypt was united in the ousting of Hosni Murbarak, the former president, in 2011, but bridging divisions in 2012 will define the regions most populous country.
Egypt was united in the ousting of Hosni Murbarak, the former president, in 2011, but bridging divisions in 2012 will define the regions most populous country.

CAIRO // In the arc of history, the bitter divisions and instability of Egypt as it is now could be seen as a turbulent moment on the path to democracy, or the point where the revolution was crushed by the generals.

Few believed the uprising in January and February that toppled Hosni Mubarak and gave power to the army would create a functioning civilian democracy overnight.

But in the past few months, Egypt - once defiantly united against the old regime - has become a country divided.

The next year will be crucial.

As the Arab world's most populous country and the root of many religious and cultural influences, what happens here will affect the region on issues such as the relationship between Islam and the state.

"The disagreements in Egypt right now are foundational," said Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

"They are about the constitution, the relationship between the military and politics, the role of different branches of government … It's very unclear right now what will come of these debates," he said.

Egypt's newly freed Islamist parties are the clear winners in the vote for a new parliament.

After 80 years of brutal repression, the Muslim Brotherhood is now the most powerful political group in the country through its Freedom and Justice party.

With the Salafist Al Nour Party and the moderate Islamist Al Wasat Party, the Brotherhood will control up to 70 per cent of parliament.

The Freedom and Justice Party has espoused a platform of better education and health care and not pushed to make Egypt a more Islamic state.

Members of Al Nour have made comments about banning alcohol sales at stores and bikinis on beaches.

But the party's biggest impact could be in helping to write a new constitution, which will be drafted by a 100-member committee appointed by the parliament.

The liberal and secular groups, who portray themselves as the authors of the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak, will have a much smaller role in the new government.

But thousands of their members - and other groups - have taken to the streets since last month to protest the often brutal stewardship of the country under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

Those protests turned into clashes in which more than 50 people died and thousands were injured. Three streets near Cairo's Tahrir Square were blockaded with concrete blocks.

The military, unable to stop the protests demanding a faster handover to civilian rule, has tried to wall them off.

Presidential elections are set for June. But there were calls in the past week to bring these forward to February 11, the anniversary of Mr Mubarak's resignation.

As the year closes, the generals are vulnerable and discredited. Images of protesters being assaulted - including a woman stripped of her abaya and left in a bra and jeans - have been beamed around the world and across the internet.

Protesters are attacking from one side and Islamists bolstered by their democratic mandate from elections supported by Scaf are preparing for a larger battle over the military's role in the future government.

Sameh Seif Al Yazal, a former general and the head of the Al Gomhuria Centre for Political and Security Studies, sees the country riven by insecurity.

"We have political insecurity, physical insecurity, economic insecurity," he said. "These are the challenges now."

Indeed, beyond the political battles playing out on the streets and in the new parliament next year, the government will have to deal with an economy on the edge of a downturn and containing militant groups in Sinai that have bombed the natural gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan 10 times this year.

bhope@thenational.ae