In Egypt, surprises a year into revolution

Islamists not so popular, parliament not so rights-friendly, the press not so free.

First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390 (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
One year on, Egypt’s revolution isn’t many of the things that either the Egyptians themselves or those on from the outside think.
Many have loudly protested what they fear is the interim military government’s refusal to cede power. On Wednesday, that was at the top of the agenda as demonstrators massed for a rally at Tahrir Square, where exactly a year earlier they started the process that would bring down President Husni Mubarak in just 18 days.
Meanwhile, many fear that the rise of Islamist parties in the past year will cause the values that animated the revolution in it earliest days to be eclipsed by religion. That was amply illustrated earlier this week when a new parliament controlled by Islamists met for the first time to begin work on writing a new constitution.
At the same time, Egyptians are counting on their newly-elected civilian leaders to entrench democratic freedoms and see themselves enjoying greater freedom of expression than they ever did under Mubarak. Wednesday’s Tahrir Square rally could never have occurred in the Mubarak era.
All the above illustrate popular perceptions. But a spate of polls and other reports coming out on the first anniversary of the uprising paint a very different picture.
They show that Egyptians do not deeply identify with the Islamic agenda and have faith that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will cede power to civilian rule. Meanwhile, human rights organizations expressed doubts about how committed Egypt’s emergent political parties are to liberty and equality, and say media freedom has actually deteriorated in the past year.
A poll of Egyptians taken by the Gallup organization released on the eve of the revolution’s anniversary  found that most voters had opted to vote for Islamist parties only as election day neared and that large numbers of Egyptians actively oppose them..
Surveys Gallup took in September and again in the third week of December found that support for the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) jumped from just 16 percent to 50% in the space of three months. Support for the Salafist Al-Nour Party rose between the two polls from 7% to 31%, Gallup said.
The election results, which left liberal and secular parties trailing badly, came as a surprise to most analysts. But the December poll results mirrored the election outcome in which the FJP secured 47% of the elected seats in parliament and Al-Nour captured 24%.
Yet despite those thumping majorities, Gallup said the 11th-hour show of support for Islamists suggests that Egyptian voters are not enthusiastic backers of the Muslim agenda. Moreover, 42% of the 1,077 people polled in December said they do not support FJP and 58% oppose Al-Nour, according to Gallup.
Other polls, it added, found that the top concerns of Egyptians are the economy and personal safety, with only 1% citing “moral decay” as a concern.
“That pragmatism indicates that the country’s next elections could be equally surprising – if Egyptians believe that other political parties can address their problems more effectively, it is likely many of them will not refrain from switching their votes,” Gallup’s H.A. Hellyer said in a commentary.
On the other hand, despite the worries of the Tahrir Square protesters, a wide majority of Egyptians say they believe SCAF will transfer power to civilian rule after the presidential elections scheduled for June. The December poll, taken between the 16th and 23rd of the month, found 82% remained confident of a handover.
SCAF has indicated that it wants a say in writing Egypt’s new constitution, which will be the main task of the newly elected parliament, and that it aims to retain some autonomy and power independent of elected civilian leaders. But the Gallup poll found that almost two thirds said they oppose the army interfering in politics.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that its efforts before the parliamentary elections to enlist Egypt’s political parties to a 10-point democracy and human rights agenda yielded only mixed results.
Nine of the 15 main parties pledged to back some of Amnesty’s rights agenda, but only two – the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Popular Socialist Alliance Party – accepted the entire list. The FJP was one of three parties not to respond “substantively,” despite what Amnesty termed “considerable efforts”  to seek its views, Amnesty said.
Many refused to sign on to promises to end discrimination against gays, protect women’s rights or abolish the death penalty. The two parties that expressed support for abolishing the death penalty insisted this could only be a long-term goal, not one achievable in the coming years.
“With the first session of the new parliament sitting this week, it is encouraging that so many of the major parties engaged with us and were prepared to sign up to ambitious pledges for change on combating torture, protecting slum residents’ rights and ensuring fair trials,” said Philip Luther, interim Middle East and North Africa director, for the London-based organization.
“But it is disturbing that a number of parties refused to commit to equal rights for women. With a handful of women taking up seats in the new parliament, there remain huge obstacles to women playing a full role in Egyptian political life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Egypt was cited by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders as the only one of three Arab Spring countries undergoing regime change to have seen a marked deterioration in press freedom during 2011.
Tunisia, which expelled its long-standing leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya, which did the same for Muammar Gaddafi, both rose in the global rankings. But, Reporters said in its World Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 released on Wednesday that Egypt plummeted 39 places to 166th out of 179 countries, a decline it blamed both on Mubarak’s government before it was ousted in February and subsequently on the SCAF.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in power since February, dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices,” the Paris-based organization said. It pointed to three periods of “exceptional violence for journalists” in Egypt in February, November and December.