Kwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne
Arriving in Cairo is always exciting. It’s hot, dusty, noisy, and very much a city of the developing world. It is also, by population, one of the largest cities in the world.
I first visited Egypt in 1998 as a student, and it was a more secular place then than it is today. Hijabs are now much more commonly worn, the consumption of alcohol is more frowned on, and it is less widely available. But outwardly most things aren’t that different. Over the last four years I have visited Egypt on a number of delegations with the Conservative Middle East Council to try and find out what is going on. I was particularly pleased to introduce a Westminster Hall debate on this important subject earlier this week.
The last four years have been a difficult period for Egypt. Estimates vary, but people say that between 15 and 20 per cent of the old Egyptian economy was based on tourism. The uncertainties of the past few years have led to a virtual collapse in the Egyptian tourist trade. Businessmen we spoke to reckoned that in some cases their turnover was five per cent of what it had been before the “Arab Spring”. Certainly, the large hotel we stayed in, right next to Tahrir Square, was almost empty.
Many of the richest Egyptians have taken their money out of the country and have bought high end properties in Europe, especially in London. For poorer Egyptians, the situation has been very difficult. Food prices have increased, and there has been a marked deterioration in law and order. It is said that many people carry guns with them at all times.
There was clearly relief that, after a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, the army had now stepped in to stabilise the situation. The Muslim Brotherhood, having won the Parliamentary elections and the presidency, had allowed power to go to their heads. They behaved in a dictatorial and arrogant manner. They were also shockingly incompetent. The economy continued to nosedive.
As they are banned, we could no longer meet any officials from the Brotherhood. The people we did meet were cautiously optimistic, now that the Muslim Brotherhood had been ousted from power. Many Egyptians can’t understand why the January 2011 revolution, part of the so -alled “Arab Spring”, has been hailed by the West, while the demonstrations which induced the army to take over last year have been condemned. Of course, they may not have so strong a belief in the sanctity of elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood won both parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012. Flushed with this success, they began to rule Egypt in a surprisingly partisan way. Millions of people who had supported the Brotherhood grew tired of the swaggering arrogance they saw many Brotherhood members display. More depressingly, the situation of Egypt’s Christian community, the Copts, had become more dangerous under Brotherhood rule. The Copts constitute 10 – 12 per cent of the population, and have practised Christianity since long before the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Yet in recent years churches have been attacked and violence openly inflicted on Coptic Christians. The Copts, together with many other Egyptians, longed for the end of Brotherhood rule.
The tragedy of Egypt has been that no powerful secular parties have really emerged in the last 50 years. This has meant that power is centred around the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. These are the only two groups of any scale and political support in the country. A host of smaller parties were created after the fall of Mubarak, but none of them really matched the organisation and power that these two groups enjoy.
A further tragedy has been that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the army seems willing to negotiate with each other. The Muslim Brotherhood, in their brief period in charge, engrossed as much power as they could. They changed the constitution. They made no secret of the fact that they intended to command absolute power.
In their turn, the army is now resolved to take a tough line against political Islam in the name of peace and stability. It appears that they are doing this in a heavy-handed manner. 60 people were killed in demonstrations across the country last weekend. It now seems that General Sisi, the Minister of Defence who only last week was made a Field Marshal, is certain to run for the presidency. Should he stand, he is likely to win this election easily. General Sisi was the only person whose name we heard in the context of the presidency.
Even before I became an MP I was always fascinated by Egypt and its history. Egypt is at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. It is probably the only country which, from earliest history, has been actively involved in the history of all three of those continents. Egyptian pharaohs traded with kings in the Near East. We all know about the Hebrew slaves held in captivity by Pharaoh. Egypt traded with the Nubians who inhabited what we now call Sudan, and was the main source of corn for imperial Rome
Today Egypt is the home of nearly 90 million people, roughly 80 million of whom are Muslims. A third of the Arabic-speaking world lives in Egypt, and the Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood because of the powerful position Egypt holds in film, television dramas and journalism.
So what happens in Egypt is clearly of great importance to the wider Middle East. As the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is also an important arena for political Islam. The West needs to tread very warily in promoting a system of elections in which only the Islamist parties have the organisation to compete effectively. In a more secular country like Tunisia, with all its exposure to European tourism, the An-Nahda party, a twin organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, swept to power in elections in 2011, catching the world by surprise.
There is a feeling that we have been wrong-footed over developments of the past three or four years. We have to be more cautious about backing particular groups. Our focus should be on humanitarian and, in some specific cases, financial support. We should not be trying to make active interventions in the political future of these states. Our actions are likely to lead to unforeseen consequences, and we will be caught out in the embarrassment of supporting sides only to reverse our positions when those we support are summarily ousted.