Egyptian people's vengeance


A nation of 80 million people, Egypt this week reached the cusp of revolutionary change. While the outbreak of mass protests may have been sudden and unforeseen, the grievances at the heart of the movement are far less mysterious.

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President Hosni Mubarak has controlled Egypt with authoritarian diligence since 1981. Rampant corruption, particularly nepotism, and economic mismanagement has generated a growing sense of resentment among ordinary Egyptians and perpetuated Egypt's mounting economic ills.

In just one example, Mubarak has long manipulated the government subsidies on food and fuel to maintain his popular support. These subsidies are inefficient and a drain on the Egyptian economy. It is not unusual for policy decisions to be driven by regime maintenance rather than the socio-economic needs of Egyptians.

During three decades of rule, Mubarak has amended constitutional dictates and molded the law to suit his regime. Opposition political parties must be endorsed by his bureaucracy, and presidential candidates need similar approval to run for election. In fact, direct presidential elections were only introduced in 2005.

Opposition groups are routinely harassed, repressed, even imprisoned to maintain the political dominance of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). The tightness of the political space has limited opposition, and this repression is now being avenged on the streets.

Although the protests have been unprecedented, it is unclear what the result will be. So far Mubarak has offered cosmetic concessions, such as the dismissal of the Egyptian cabinet and appointment of a vice-president. Egyptians are unimpressed and continue to call for Mubarak's departure.

The state police have been withdrawn and lawlessness has taken hold in Cairo and surrounding areas. Widespread looting is prompting individuals to arm themselves. Prison breakouts have occurred. A near freeze on food supplies is forcing Egyptians to queue for bread.

Many of these incidents appear to have been organised by the regime in an attempt to convince Egyptians life was better under Mubarak's rule. But the protestors have not faltered, and what is emerging is a stand-off between Mubarak and the people of Egypt.

Many believe the military is the sole force capable of taking control. It was a relief when the army appeared on the streets this week. Egyptians respect the military, due to its historical neutrality and the perception that it has Egypt's best interests at heart. This was reinforced this week by statements from the military that they will not fire on peaceful crowds and will uphold freedom of expression.

Any ouster of the current regime will need the support of the military.

In the case of a truly democratic election, another highly influential actor will come into play. As the most popular and most controversial opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood is often the elephant in the room of Egyptian politics. From its founding in 1928 to today, the group's leading figures have ranged from the politically moderate to the Islamic extreme.

Herein lies, in large part, the reason why Western donors have supported Mubarak. They fear an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood.

Common wisdom in the West holds that the Muslim Brotherhood is an anti-democratic force, hostile to human rights. Yet such statements are driven more by fear than fact. The Brotherhood is not a monolith. While some leading thinkers have espoused a frightening world view, a more recent crop of leaders declared a willingness to participate in the democratic process.

The Egyptian constitution forbids religious political parties, and so the Brotherhood has been outlawed since 1954. Still, the group is popular, and provides the strongest and most organised opposition to Mubarak's NDP.

In the 2005 parliamentary election, responding to pressure from then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mubarak loosened the electoral laws. The result was a startling success for the Brotherhood, which captured a record 20 per cent of the 454 parliamentary seats by running as independents. In the aftermath, Mubarak tightened the rules once more, and in the 2010 election the Brotherhood won only a single seat.

The current protests have a distinctly secular flavour and the Brotherhood has not tried to play a controlling role. In fact, together with the other opposition groups they have formed the National Association for Change, led by the apparent spokesman for the protests, Mohamed ElBaradei.

A Brotherhood bureau chief stated that 'what we want is what the people want; right now we should have a completely different regime. We should have freedom and free elections.'

Should they occur in Egypt's future, truly democratic elections would likely deliver a majority share of the government to the Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood were to participate in a unity coalition, with an independent president, such as ElBaradei, and a strong army to guard the integrity of democratic institutions, Egypt may be able to forge a brave new path.

Given the group's popularity, any step toward democracy that arises from the protests must involve the Brotherhood, or else it would be a wasted opportunity. It would extend the hypocrisy of the democratic rhetoric during the Mubarak years and perpetuate the deprivation of Egyptian rights in favour of foreign interests.

What we are seeing on our television screens is a long overdue expression of democratic sentiment. That sentiment must be allowed to flourish with the support and encouragement of foreign allies. 

Ashlea SciclunaAshlea Scicluna is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of International Relations from La Trobe University and a Master of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies from the Australian National University. 

Topic tags: Ashlea Scicluna, Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood, President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo



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Existing comments

Ashlea, I am largely ignorant of the reasons behind the protests in Egypot. You have illuminated the situation beautifully. Thank you.
MBG | 02 February 2011

Yes I think any modern Constitution must clearly annunciate the principle of the separation of Church and State or an equivalent commitment to a secular constitution. Interesting that the Muslin Brotherhood all stood as independents in 2005 ... so how does one get around that?? Perhaps as the Turkish military does and just step in when they think the secular flavour of government has faded or its commitment to secular government has evanesced. Thanks Ashlea for this informative article.
John Edwards | 02 February 2011

I hope that Ashlea Scicluna is right about the Muslim Brotherhood not being an extemist wolf in a moderate sheep's clothing. However, it could be a repeat of the Iranian revolution. The Islamic extremists initially played along with the revolutionaries then hijacked the revolution. All opposition was brutally crushed to bring in an Islamic theocracy.

I suspect and fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will follow similar path. They will go along with talk of the will of the people, freedom and democracy. But ultimately it may well all be a smokescreen. Their true aim most likely is to bring in an Islamic state run under the brutal dictates of Sharia Law. Democractic elections could be nothing but a Trojan horse.

I would be loathe to see the thuggery the Iranian government has inflicted on its people, be the template for what the Brotherhood would do to the Egyptians. Time alone will tell.
Patrick James | 03 February 2011

Fine and well for this article to have the title "Egyptian People's Revenge". However, this article does not mention a group that has suffered more in Egypt than any other. I refer to the Copts. The ancient Christian inhabitants of this land have long been under the heel of the Muslim majority. They do not enjoy equal rights. I have only recently started reading Eureka Street, so I am not aware if it has featured any articles on this topic. However, if the Muslim Brotherhood gains control of Egypt, as Patrick James fears they may, then the repression of the Copts will likely be worse than it already is.
Nguyen Duy | 03 February 2011

Ashlea Scicluna assumes that a move to democracy in Egypt will necessarily bring about the same sort of human rights that we have in the West. This is far from the case. The following link features a survey that shows the Egyptian people's will may well bring about grave abuses of human rights. People should read the article in detail. However, the more salient findings include the following percentages wanting traditional Islamic punishments. 82%: Believe adulterers should be stoned 84%: Believe apostates from Islam should face the death penalty 77%: Believe thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off. Perhaps we should not only be concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood but the average man and woman in the street. They may use the same phrases as us about democracy and freedom, but it does not mean that their society will ultimately share the same core values as our own.
John Ryan | 04 February 2011


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