Egypt is fractured. Its army can be the glue

Posted: January 30, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The heady days of youthful uprising have been replaced by division and mistrust 

By Abdellatif Almenawy as published in the Times

When I visited Cairo at the end of last year, ten months had passed since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and his Government.

I caught a programme on the most popular of the new private TV channels that have sprung up.

The presenter was hosting a discussion between four guests. On the one side was a Coptic priest, a representative of the Egyptian evangelical church, on the other side was a Muslim Brother and a Salafist (an adherent to a strict interpretation of the Koran). The discussion was about whether the Copts should have to pay the Jizya tax, a historical charge levied on non-Muslims to live in a Muslim country, a relic that dates back to the early Muslim caliphate. The other matter up for debate was whether it was permitted in Islam for any Muslim to feel love for their Christian neighbours.

I saw a familiar panic on the faces of the Christian representatives on the programme. It reminded me of the concern drawn on the face of Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic church and good friend of mine, when I met him last March to discuss the state of the country.

The real concern is that these issues are being debated in public at all. These idle discussions are not what the uprising was about — but they could tear the country apart.

During those 18 days in February, we saw Muslims and Christians protecting each other and protesting together. But now the sectors and parties that make up Egyptian society are attacking each other and trust has broken down.

The political power that has really tasted the fruits of the uprising have not been the liberal forces that drove it but the Islamists, who gained more than two thirds of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections — the Muslim Brotherhood with 38 per cent, the hardline Al-Nour party with 29 per cent — not to mention that 20 per cent of winning candidates may side with the Islamists in a future government.

The revolutionary youth, who captured the hearts of viewers across the world last February, are not a unified power. They are split into more than 200 different groups, without a single power structure or mechanism to mobilise on the electoral front. Their challenge to the old order will not be able to succeed until they drop their differences and work together with other powers in Egypt. That includes, controversial as it may seem, the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), which currently governs Egypt.

Though it is the subject of intense criticism and protest, the ruling SCAF cannot be taken out of the political equation. I never wanted the army to have such a role in political life, but things have changed. It is the only entity that has the power to change Egypt’s state institutions. They have publicly promised to hand over power in June. It is not feasible to demand that they step down before then, especially when far more than half of Egyptians support their position today.

In spite of the protests we have seen on our television screens over the last year, Egypt is not Cairo. Cairo is not Tahrir Square. Egypt is thousands of villages, towns and cities, a nation of 85 million people. Yet every Egyptian family has a tie, a special relationship, with the military through national service. The military has made mistakes, dire mistakes. But this does not mean that they are the enemy: they have carried the country through four major wars in the past 60 years.

Up to now, they have at least allowed a free and fair election, and the result has been respected, something that did not happen in the days of Mubarak. The co-operation between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood has been highlighted, but since the military assumed power, liberal and secular forces have refused to work with them as they no faith in the Armed Forces to run the state. This has left a vacuum in which the Muslim Brotherhood has taken advantage.

The talk in Cairo is that the co-operation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will lead us to the Turkish model. But this is a fallacy. Kamal Ataturk founded Turkey as a secular state in the 1920s. No major changes happened in Turkey until the 21st century, after 80 years of secularism. When they elected a party with an Islamist flavour, they maintained the secularity of the state. Egypt has never been through the Turkish experience. It was a shock to Islamists in Egypt when the Turkish Prime Minister announced: “A secular state respects all religions. Do not be wary of secularism. I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt.”

The future of Egypt is uncertain. I hope for the best in the long term but we will be severely tested as a nation in the meanwhile.

Abdel Latif El Menawy is a former head of news for Egyptian State Television. His book Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak was published last week.

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