As Egypt's democracy falters, is the Arab Spring finally over?

Posted on: 26 January 2012 by Alexander Hay

Euphoria is a dangerous thing, leading us astray from an often ugly, seldom tidy reality. Such is the case with the Arab Spring, where an initial surge of People Power is retreating in the face of elected governments of religious extremists, ongoing civil strife and common-or-garden repression.

The protests in Tahrir Square inspired the world - but is the dream already dead?Egypt is increasingly a case in point, where an overthrow of the old Mubarak regime has simply exchanged one form of dictatorship for another:

...IT IS TEMPTING to believe that things might have turned out differently had Washington worked harder to bolster the young revolutionaries who seemingly exemplified America’s own liberal values when they took to the streets last January. These brave activists, after all, had won America’s hearts to the tune of an 82-percent approval rating at the height of the revolt, and their photogenic faces carried the promise of a more democratic, friendly Egypt.

But the activists were never who we hoped they were. Far from being liberal, their ranks were largely comprised of Nasserists, revolutionary socialists, and Muslim Brotherhood youths—an alliance of convenience for opposing Mubarak and, later, for denouncing the U.S...

Likewise, the flip-side of idealism is dogmatism, and Egypt's new rulers seem less interested in pragmatism and more a pursuit of hobby-horses and old blood feuds. While popular on the street, this will inevitably weaken Egypt in the long run and undermine its credibility:

"...Thus, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in March 2011, a group of leading activists refused to meet with her. They also turned out to be intolerant conspiracy theorists: When classically Cairoesque rumors that a “Jewish Masonic” ceremony was to be held at the pyramids on November 11, the April 6th Youth Movement’s Democratic Front declared that this non-existent event should be prohibited. “We are committed to the achievements of the revolution, which emphasized freedom,” they said in a statement. “But freedom is not absolute freedom, and … it is constrained by the regulations and beliefs of the Egyptian people, who do not accept that these celebrations be protected in the wake of the revolution...”

We have been here before. Indeed, in terms of short-sightedness, the new Egyptian order seems ever more like most other Arab regimes, from Saddamm Hussein's Iraq to Gaddaffi's Libya, where authoritarianism combined with cupidism serves only to impoverish, imperil and provoke.

This is doubly dangerous for the Egyptian people as they are right next door to Israel, a nuclear power that relied on an agreement with Mubarak for its security and which has been rather predictably jumpy over the turmoil just going over its border.

Such new-found power for the Islamists will also simply worsen the situation for Egypt's economy. After all, and unless it involves oil, no one particularly likes to visit or have much to do with a glorified open prison run by joyless god-botherers:

...In this vein, the Brotherhood’s leaders have said repeatedly that the organization intends to put the Camp David Accords to a referendum — a strategy that it apparently believes will enable it to sink Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel while escaping the blame. Brotherhood leaders have additionally called for banning bikinis, beach bathing, and alcohol despite the fact that these are essential elements to Egypt’s tourism industry, which comprises roughly ten percent of Egypt’s stagnating economy. The organization also supports new legislation that would limit foreign funding of NGOs, thereby undercutting Washington’s ability to aid pro-democratic organizations. Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, the Brotherhood intends to establish the sharia as the principal source of Egyptian legislation and criminalize criticism of Islamic law, thereby rendering Christians and secularists unequal citizens...

Needless to say, the Muslim Brotherhood's policies make an unlikely peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians even less likely, especially given Israeli concerns over how Gaza militants could be rearmed via Sinai and a less friendly Egyptian government looking the other way.

There is, of course, another worrying scenario. The other main beneficiaries of the Tahrir Square protests are the Salafists, an even more conservative and potentially violent religious faction than the Muslim Brotherhood itself. No friends of the MB by any yardstick, the Salafists of Egypt have close links to extremists in the Occupied Territories, not to mention historical ties with Al Qaieda. The Salafists will, naturally, try to make the most of their new-found power.

Sadly, it is more likely that Egypt will be paralysed by the ensuing political squabbling, with all the instability that will signify:

...The opening session began with fitting solemnity as the 508 parliamentarians held a moment's silence to honour those killed in the uprising against Mubarak...

But they soon began to go off-message. Salafist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail ad-libbed his lines to insert "if not in contradiction with God’s doctrine" to his oath, prompting other members of the Salafi bloc - the second largest with nearly 25 per cent of seats - to follow...

This doesn't, of course, translate into any intellectual maturity:

...As Mr el-Sakka attempted to shout him into silence, Mohamed el-Beltagy, a senior figure in the FJP, began shouting at Mr Sultan to listen to the acting speaker. It was not long before members of the Brotherhood party and Mr Sultan's Wassat Party were yelling at one another.

But the Brotherhood beat back the challenge, successfully winning the vote. Late on Monday night, Mr Katatni said in his victory speech: "This is democracy that had left this hall for years, and now the people have grasped it."

Yet as Oscar Wilde once put it, “Democracy is the oppression of the people by the people for them people”. Naturally, the Egyptian Army, while making soothing noises about handing over power will be watching intently. The Arab Spring may, in the end, have been only a fleeting exercise in hope.

[SOURCES: The New Republic & Channel 4 News]

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Alexander Hay

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