x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Political paralysis lies ahead for Egypt

Lying ahead for Egypt are at least five more months of political paralysis - an ominous prospect for a country once touted as a potential beacon of reform in the Arab Spring. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Egyptian protesters set alight a bus belonging to Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Without the aid from governments sympathetic to Egypt's experiment with Islamist governance, the streets might easily be awash in demonstrators.
Egyptian protesters set alight a bus belonging to Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Without the aid from governments sympathetic to Egypt's experiment with Islamist governance, the streets might easily be awash in demonstrators.

CAIRO // Lying ahead for Egypt are at least five more months of political paralysis - an ominous prospect for a country that some Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike once touted as a potential beacon of reform in the Arab Spring.

Parliamentary elections are not expected to begin before October, due to legal wrangling over a new election law. The opposition, united only in their dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the executive branch, which wields powers that rival those of the autocratic Hosni Mubarak because there is no legitimate legislature, appear no closer to reconciliation.

The deadlock means that any meaningful reform of Egypt's dilapidated government institutions will remain on the back-burner, security will remain elusive and the already crumbling economy will only worsen - in all, a disconcerting state of affairs for millions of people who hoped that the 2011 uprising would translate into a better life.

A genuine economic crisis - one catalyst that could have hastened change - has been staved off at least temporarily by Mohammed Morsi, thanks to roughly US$13 billion (Dh47.8bn) worth of aid and loans from Qatar, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Egypt's budget deficit is widening and its ability to buy enough wheat and petroleum products to keep the country's huge subsidy system running smoothly is eroding because spending has far outpaced government revenues. The pound has devalued by 11 per cent since December, which has increased prices for basic products.

Without the aid from governments sympathetic to Egypt's experiment with Islamist governance, the streets might easily be awash in demonstrators from all walks of life. Disagreements about the country's direction have been enough to inspire tens of thousands to demonstrate. A serious bread shortage would make those protests look like a modest, street-corner meeting.

"We are really scared to death that the government is going to keep getting these loans to keep the ball rolling until elections," said Ahmed Said, the head of the liberal Free Egyptians party and member of the National Salvation Front.

"They are trying to convince people that these loans are part of some revival of the economy, but in fact it's just buying time," he said.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood - the group where Mr Morsi is a former deputy leader - has accused the opposition of trying to dismantle the government through undemocratic means and of crippling the economy with demonstrations. Mr Morsi himself has referred in his speeches to "unseen hands" trying to destroy Egypt's free and fair political transition.

Unable to rally enough supporters to force the government to heed their demands for a new, "neutral" cabinet and a committee to amend the constitution, the opposition has increasingly tried to make the case that its leaders are better poised to steer the economy back on track, painting the Brotherhood's economic team as mere merchants unfamiliar with fiscal policy.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Al Dostour Party and one of the leaders of the opposition, earlier this month released a 119-page economic manifesto with detailed proposals for how to increase growth in different industries.

The report was not notable for its content - much of it has been said before - but it was striking because Mr Morsi's government or party has not done anything similar. Mr Morsi campaigned on a platform for an Egyptian renaissance, called the Al Nahda project, but that plan has never amounted to more than a few pages of general philosophy.

The billions of dollars worth of bilateral loans and aid has bought Mr Morsi more time in having to make what economists believe are unavoidable decisions about increasing taxes and reducing subsidies - something former president Hosni Mubarak was loathe to even discuss.

As vice president under Anwar Sadat, Mubarak's own home in Alexandria was sacked by protesters when the government tried to reduce subsidies in 1977. Faced with huge demonstrations, Sadat immediately backtracked and Mubarak, as president, never again broached the subject.

A sign that Mr Morsi is also aware of the risks of national drift is that no agreement has been reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a proposed $4.8bn loan. The IMF will only release the funds if Egypt creates an economic reform plan to right side the budget through increased taxes and cuts to the subsidy system.

Signing that deal would also unlock some $12bn of other aid from predominantly Western donors who are waiting for the IMF's seal of approval on Egypt's economic reform plan - a sum just over the amount of bilateral aid Egypt has received in the past two years.

With the economy deteriorating, but not yet in a state of collapse, the opposition has sought other battles in a bid to discredit the government.

The latest stand-off between the National Salvation Front and Mr Morsi has come out of a proposed law that would lower the retirement age of judges to 60 from 70, a move that would lead to the removal of some 3,000 judges. The opposition says the law would allow Mr Morsi to pack the judiciary with his supporters, while the Muslim Brotherhood has said it was a necessary step to "cleanse the judiciary" of Mubarak-era appointees.

The disagreement is similar to the one that coalesced the National Salvation Front in November, when Mr Morsi issued a decree that shielded his decisions from judicial oversight and unilaterally replaced the public prosecutor.

But as seen by Mohamed Mahsoub, a former minister of state for parliamentary affairs and outspoken critic of Mr Morsi, the disagreement is about politics and not the law itself.

"We have changed the way we elect a president and the powers of the branches of government, so it makes sense that we should make changes in the ministry of justice," said Mr Mahsoub, a member of the moderate Islamist Al Wasat Party, which proposed the law to lower the retirement age. "The opposition talks about the law as if it is a violation of the independence of the judiciary, but that's not true. We need new blood. Politics is covering the truth."

Mr Morsi's minister of justice, Ahmed Mekki, resigned on Saturday because of the proposed law, but the issue has not created the furore that the opposition hoped for.

On Tuesday, Mr Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, also stepped down. In an open letter, he highlighted the "extent of the danger facing the country" at a time when "personal interests are overwhelming national interests".

Thus, the deadlock is likely to continue until the elections, said Mohamed Menza, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo and a founding member of the liberal Egypt Freedom Party. Only then will the opposition have a chance to prove whether they can win voters from the Brotherhood and the scattered, but popular Salafist parties.

"When elections come, I think a lot of the forces within the Front will enter the elections," he said. "They have talked about a boycott because they didn't want to be considered counter-revolutionary, but in reality a lot of them are willing to participate. They have their own agendas at the end of the day and want to be represented in the next parliament."

bhope@thenational.ae

twitter: For breaking news from the Gulf, the Middle East and around the globe follow The National World. Follow us