Politically divided, and in turmoil once again. So appears Egypt on the second anniversary of the demonstrations that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, eventually causing the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. More than twelve months after the first free parliamentary vote, and half a year after the presidential election which saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi prevail over Mubarak’s former PM Ahmed Shafiq, many political parties and youth movements took to the streets again. Having merged into a National Salvation Front and led by Nobel Prize laureate Mohammed El Baradei and former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabbahi, they protest against what they see as the Muslim Brotherhood’s increased grip on power, which reached its peak with the highly-contested referendum on the new constitutional draft in mid-December.
The slogans sung in the streets and the clashes between protesters and pro-Brotherhood demonstrators recalled the last days of the Mubarak regime. Nevertheless, “it’s too difficult to compare what is going on in Egypt right now with what happened two years ago”, warns Sameh Fawzy, a Coptic scholar and journalist, director of the ‘Bibliotheca Alexandrina’ Centre for Development Studies. In the last months “the political parties failed to reach an agreement over the political process, so most of the people took to the streets, trying to manage politics at a street level”, he adds. At present, Fawzy says, “different political forces flex their muscles in the streets, trying to show their support at a grassroots level and send messages to the other camp. This is quite dangerous, for it can make the situation more inflammatory”.
One of the biggest risks is that the internal conflict is influenced by external factors such as extremism: al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri addressed radical Salafist militants in the country through a YouTube video in December asking “all who want to cleanse Egypt from social immorality and corruption” to “complete the revolution”, and even the Muslim Brotherhood-owned TV channel aired disputed information according to which 50-60% of anti Morsi protesters were Christians. Nevertheless, religion appears to be little more than a pretext for a fully blown political crisis: clerics from Al–Azhar (the foremost centre of Sunni religious teaching) reportedly joined the opposition marches; and the newly elected Coptic Orthodox Pope himself, Tawadros, called for moderation.
Another big source of uncertainty is the army, which de facto held power between the end of Mubarak’s rule and the presidential elections, and whose behaviour repeatedly raised criticism both from the Muslim Brotherhood and from the secular political movements. In December the army issued a statement mentioning its duty to ‘protect the country’ “which means – Sameh Fawzy explains – that the army is in, and ready to take over, but the questions on how the army will take over and in which direction are still unanswered and unclear”.
The army statement, according to Fawzy, also takes into account the possible international consequences of the crisis: “Egypt is very influential in the Middle East and in the Arab world and if the country tumbles into chaos, violence may spill over in the region and create a real problem to the countries of the Arab Spring”. Instability in Egypt can also affect the regional scenery: even US president Barack Obama expressed his “concern” in a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart during the December protests. And also the Israeli authorities look attentively at what is happening in Cairo, well aware that Egypt is one of the keys to stability in the Middle East: president Morsi himself was instrumental in brokering the Hamas-Israel ceasefire following the Gaza crisis in November.
Two years of instability also had serious consequences on the local economy: according to the International Monetary Fund, Egyptian GDP growth fell from 5.1 percent in 2010 to just 1.7 percent in 2011 and will likely stay under 2 percent in 2012. Consequently, the unemployment rate is expected to stand at 12.7 percent (it was 9.1 in 2010). Since they came to power, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm – the Freedom and Justice Party – were also accused of neglecting this particular aspect, focusing on the power struggle with the military and the remnants of the old regime instead. This might also explain why in the toughest day of the protest Morsi halted a much-criticized tax increase plan. In turn, this decision led to the delay of a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan widely seen as vital for the Egyptian economy by international observers, and its consequences still remain unpredictable.
All things considered, Egypt now looks slightly different from what could be imagined in the enthusiastic aftermath of the ‘Tahrir Square Revolution’. The Egyptians who took part in the first street movement “called for social equity, freedom and liberty”, Fawzy states. “Now they are trying to judge the whole situation according to the main slogans raised in Tahrir Square and elsewhere”, adds the scholar, who draws a frank balance: “It seems that all political forces, Islamists and non-Islamists failed to a large extent to develop a new process that can lead Egypt to a real democracy.” “Toppling the regime – is the disenchanted conclusion – seems to have been an easy task, in comparison with building a new democratic system”.