Egypt’s shaky rule

Having just commemorated the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, we should be wary of the potential for sudden, and violent, change on our border to the south.

Protest in Cairo (photo credit: Reuters)
Protest in Cairo
(photo credit: Reuters)
A day after Cairo’s streets were marred with bloodshed that left 24 dead and hundreds wounded, Egypt’s future appeared even more uncertain.
Like the September 9 storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by enraged Egyptian masses, Sunday’s violence, sparked by Christian Copts’ outrage at the desecration of one of their churches, was yet another reminder of the potential dangers in store for Egypt as it gropes haltingly for a more enlightened and democratic leadership.
In the initial stages of mayhem and killing – the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February – it seemed that demonstrations staged by the Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the population (but who are apparently leaving Egypt in large numbers since March) transformed into a more general protest against the ruling military junta – Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Protesters chanted, “The people want to bring down the field marshal,” adapting the signature chant of the Tahrir Square protests, to call for the resignation of the military’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
At one point, however, it appeared that military and riot police had joined forces with Muslim demonstrators chanting “The people want to bring down the Christians.”
Several protesters were crushed to death when military vehicles rammed into the crowds.
Divisions among the various sectors of Egyptian society are so numerous and deep that it is difficult to imagine any of the existing options for political leadership fostering stability when parliamentary elections are launched on November 28.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, who stand to garner around 30% to 40% of the vote, are remarkably united – while leftists, radical nationalists and moderates are divided. With Islamists likely to emerge with the single largest vote, this could result in a head-on clash with Copts and various secularist groups who had hoped for the protections of a pluralistic, democratic state, and would be alienated by intolerant Islamist rule.
Leaders of the military junta, meanwhile, would fight the Islamists to maintain their hegemony.
Still, whether or not democratic elections are good for Egypt, it seems they are unavoidable. Under immense pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties who threatened to boycott elections if SCAF went ahead with plans to delay them or postpone other reforms, the SCAF hastily reached a compromise which will apparently facilitate parliamentary elections as planned on November 28.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the agreement is SCAF’s demand to postpone presidential elections.
Instead of holding them in April 2012, they will be held in April 2013. In the interim, the military junta will hold onto executive powers, while the newly elected upper and lower houses of the Egyptian parliament work to hammer out a constitution.
If reports are true and all goes as planned, the delay of presidential elections could potentially be a positive development. Keeping the military junta in power, at least in an executive function, could help avoid a major confrontation between Egypt and the West – in particular America and Israel – even if the parliament is taken over by Islamist and radical nationalist parties.
But pressure is building among diverse groups to reinstate the April 2012 date for presidential elections so as to enable a quick transition to civil rule.
If SCAF is forced to relinquish rule next year, this could increase the chances that the sort of anarchy and internal strife witnessed on the streets of Cairo Sunday night will spread. And this could have a negative impact on, among other things, Egypt’s long-lasting peace treaty with Israel.
Having just commemorated the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, we should be wary of the potential for sudden, and violent, change on our border to the south.
Ideally, the transition to civilian rule is an admirable goal. But in Egypt’s present political reality, it could lead to further bloodshed and strife.