Thursday, 15 August 2013

Egypt: The Coming Darkness

The death toll stands at about 149 people. The security forces moved in yesterday with bulldozers and armed police to eject Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting in street camps against their president, Muhammad Morsi, being removed from office by the Egyptian army. Bloodshed was inevitable from then on.

But Egypt's descent into civil war was always likely from the moment the army dissolved the Egyptian Parliament on July 14 2012. By doing so, the Muslim Brotherhood was always going to try to proceed to go on and grab as much power as they could through the presidency of Morsi.

Two things are important here. Firstly, the Morsi presidency was never legitimate as no constitution providing checks and balances on the president's authority had been agreed prior to the election. He gained only 51% of the vote against a Mubarak regime candidate, Ahmed Shafik, in a vote with only 43% turnout.

Secondly, the military takeover on July 3 2013 was meant to exploit popular resentment at the way the Muslim Brotherhood had stolen the revolution of 2011 to impose their own version of a constitution without a clear and legitimate democratic mandate to do so.

The Egyptian security force's use of brutality in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood now is exactly what they have always wanted for two decades. A discredited Islamist opposition, that had botched its attempt to embrace democracy by trying to exclude liberal and leftist parties, could be conclusively removed.

But the sheer excess of force being used is also a demonstration to other players in the "Arab Spring" that the Egyptian army is ultimately in control. The security forces have repeatedly used force since 2011 against non-Islamist protesters who were angry at the absence of guaranteed democratic reforms.

What this "mopping up" operation in Cairo proves is that the nonsensical platitudes from Western politicians and envoys about getting democracy 'back on track' fail to grasp the reality. Western liberal observers  invested hopes in the Arab Spring that were entirely misplaced

There was never a functioning democracy in Egypt nor a revolution in 2011 but only a revolt coopted by the army into legitimising a de facto coup against Mubarak. From then on the old regime sought to defend its power by winning a duel with the main threat to that in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The 'Arab Spring' was a myth; it was, as historian Mark Almond writes, 'regime change as an inside job' .The very day after Mubarak's resignation late on 11th February 2011 the crowds, who had whipped themselves up into a fervour of hope through social media websites in Tahrir Square were dispersed.

Effectively, the it was the Egyptian army came to power in 2011. The coup of July 3 only allowed it to move centre stage and finish off the remnants of an unpopular and defeated Muslim Brotherhood. By invoking a 'state of emergency' it could pose itself as the guardian of economic and political order.

Before the 'Arab Spring', the Muslim Brotherhood had always been able to pretend to be a potential rival alternative. The Egyptian army knew it could remove that threat by acting when it did at a time of economic chaos and that the potential terrorist threat, real or imagined, could be used to bolster its power.

For if the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood leads to a resurgence of Islamist terrorism, it can be guaranteed that its financial remit from external powers would be continued. No power would want Egypt destabilised because of the Suez Canal and its geostrategic role as an oil and gas transit state.

Even if Washington decided to remove its $1.3bn annual funding, it would not make a great deal of difference to the Egyptian army which controls 40% of the economy. The Gulf States would step in to shore up the protector of the Sumed pipeline that pumps oil west to energy intensive European nations.

The Egyptian army, in any case, has until the end of 2013 to conclusively bring about the appearance of a 'democratic transition' as Washington is already pledged to providing the remaining cash for bureaucratic reasons. If it can be effected and 'stability' achieved, the calculation is that it will be business as usual.

The indications are that this cannot be the case. Libya is awash with arms after the regime change aided by Western military intervention. Al Qaida's message about a US backed coup by an 'Americanised' army will be heeded by scores of angry unemployed men without a future in an overpopulated nation.

Western politicians are wary. If Egypt collapses into anarchy, the current balance of power and set up that has existed since the 1970s will collapse. If discontent spreads into Saudi Arabia, an oil price shock could cause economic collapse across the world, especially in the EU, and lead to terrorist blowback.

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