Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Egypt's Liberals are losing the battle

Egypt's Liberals are losing the battle. (Gideon Rachman) (Financial Times)
by Fredy Benyamin on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 4:26a
All sorts of contending forces rub shoulders in Egypt these days. Last week, I found myself in the lobby of a Cairo hotel, chatting to a square-bearded, pot-bellied, fundamentalist preacher who is eager to see all women in Egypt wear the niqab – the all-encompassing veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes. Just behind him, French tourists ambled around in bathing suits. Then the hotel crooner began belting out “My Way”. I suggested we move to a quieter spot and the preacher agreed, pointing out that, as a Salafi, he objected to all forms of music – and not just Frank Sinatra.

Eventually, after further discussion of the merits of hand-chopping and the possibility of a return to Islam as practised in the seventh century, the sheikh got into his car and drove back to his job as a computer technician.

Egypt’s young liberal middle-classes are discovering that they were not the only forces set free by the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak. One leading liberal politician told me last week that he had been barely aware of Salafism until after the revolution. Suddenly, Salafi spokesmen are all over the media and are organising politically. By some reckonings they could get 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections planned for September.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the more established and less fundamentalist Islamist organisation, is generally reckoned to be good for at least a third of the vote. Add in a couple of fringe Islamist parties and you could be looking at an Islamist majority in Egypt’s first parliament. “Entirely plausible,” says a western diplomat in Cairo, as he sips his coffee.

The stakes in the coming elections are very high, since the new parliament will have the power to rewrite Egypt’s constitution and so shape the country for decades. But Egypt’s liberals face formidable odds. They are operating in a country where 40 per cent of the total population live on less than $2 a day. Some 30m Egyptians are illiterate. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most organised non-state organisation in the country, while the liberal forces are fragmented and disorganised.

Realising this, most liberals opposed the constitutional changes that laid the groundwork for parliamentary and presidential elections this year, arguing that more time was needed to establish a proper constitutional order and to allow new political forces to organise. The Muslim Brotherhood, who know that they are well placed to profit from swift elections, campaigned for a Yes vote – and were delighted to see a 77 per cent vote in favour.

The crushing defeat of the liberal camp in the referendum came as a bad shock to them, since it was the first political trial of strength between Islamists and liberals since the revolution. It should serve as a wake-up call, galvanising liberals to unify and organise.

Unfortunately, much of the energy of liberal Egypt seems to be focused on pursuing the old regime rather than preparing for the future. Earlier this month crowds reoccupied Tahrir Square in central Cairo to demand that Mr Mubarak be put on trial. Now that the demand has been granted, corruption allegations are being pursued against businesses that did well under the old regime.

Some liberals argue that the pursuit of justice and the exposure of the crimes of the old regime are crucial to the establishment of a new Egypt. They also fear that the “deep state” of the Mubarak era will re-emerge and thwart change, unless it is exposed and pursued through the courts. These are legitimate arguments. But an overconcentration on the past risks losing the future. The political dangers are heightened by a serious deterioration in the economy. Tourism is a crucial industry, but many tourists seem too frightened to go to Egypt at the moment. Visiting the Pyramids in Giza last week I virtually had the place to myself.

A lot of foreign and domestic investment is also on hold. Inflation is running at 18 per cent and food price inflation is over 50 per cent. In an effort to maintain stability, the government is pouring money into subsidies for food and energy. But the budget deficit is now about 12 per cent of GDP and foreign reserves are falling, as the central bank struggles to support the currency. Some fear that Egypt is heading for a balance-of-payments crisis. An International Monetary Fund-style austerity regime in an already poor country will not be a great advert for the post-Mubarak order.

Despite all this, there is still plenty of post-revolutionary euphoria in Cairo. People who demonstrated in Tahrir Square are still exhilarated by what has been achieved – and by a new sense of dignity and hope for the future. But the risks of political and economic chaos are rising. Egypt’s liberals need to organise fast in response and to prepare for elections.

As for the west, it cannot afford to let the dramas in Libya, Syria and Yemen lead to the neglect of Egypt. For the fate of the Arab Spring still hangs most of all on what happens in the most populous and culturally powerful country in the Arab world.

Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the frontrunners to be Egypt’s next president and a leading liberal voice, told me last week: “If we succeed here, then the march towards democracy in the Arab world is unstoppable.” On the other hand, if Egypt fails, then the blue skies and optimism of the Arab Spring may swiftly give way to something a lot stormier and darker.

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