If we were to score nature’s life forces, then the Nile, with its majestic length and width, must rank very high. But unlike its inevitable flow into the Mediterranean, the word inevitable does not apply to the political, economic, social or religious confusion which characterises Egypt today, as I witnessed so clearly during a visit last week.
There are meant to be parliamentary elections at the end of September. But they may now be postponed. The Army, which is held in high esteem, wants to be relieved of its currently intense and daunting responsibility of overseeing the political reform process. All political groupings other than the Muslim Brotherhood are disorganised, disunited and leaderless, so that many Egyptians are pleading with the Army to delay the vote.
Thus far, the attempts of the more liberal and secular minded to come together have yielded nothing. Business leaders feel that any inordinate electoral delay will further undermine consumer and investment confidence. All Egyptians lament the evaporation of a more visible police presence and worry about security, whether they are private citizens or shopkeepers. The shining new hotels built to accommodate the burgeoning tourist industry are underutilised and unloved. In a country where in 50 years the headscarf has moved from being a rarity to being virtually universal, the Christian minority is both fearful and assertive, and secular Muslims echo this sense of foreboding.
President Mubarak substantially transformed the economy, and was rewarded with good GDP growth. However any appreciable improvement in overall living standards was staunched by wholesale corruption and a population which quadrupled in sixty years. 65% of the population is now under 30, with one third being illiterate. The budget deficit is 12% and inflation is 15%. Politicians justifiably talk of the exhilaration of freedom, but ultimately it will be rising fuel and food prices and employment which will determine the success and sustainability of the new found democracy.
Next year there will be presidential elections. We do not yet know what the constitutional balance will be between the presidency and the legislature. There is much talk that it will be like the French system, with the Army having a similar role to that in Turkey. The constitutional powers of the presidency will in effect be defined by the new parliament. The three main candidates who have so far emerged are Mohamed El Baradei of the IAEA, Amr Moussa, a former Secretary General of the Arab League and Dr. Abdel Monem Fatouh, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter.
Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is a coalition stretching from those who joined it as the only viable opposition to the Mubarak regime to those with passionate Islamic convictions. Inevitably, there are sharp divisions within. Estimates of their success in the future parliamentary elections range from 25-50%. The reality is that nobody really knows. They themselves point out that in recent student elections they secured an abysmal 15-20% of the vote.
Certainly, they are talking the language of moderation and inter-communal reconciliation, of attracting inward investment, of boosting the tourism infrastructure and of accepting their international treaty obligations, notably with Israel. This language is certainly wholly at odds with the aspirations of many of their supporters, and is viewed with grave suspicion by their opponents, who believe it is a front, a cynical election ploy.
Whether it is Egypt’s Arab neighbours, the United States, the World Bank and others, support money is currently flooding into the country for a variety of different and sometimes contradictory reasons. There is a widespread recognition of the dangers of economic collapse, and its impact on the stability both of Egypt and of the region.
Unlike in some of the Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the experienced politicians and administrators who surrounded President Mubarak have been banished from the public scene. In this confused state of affairs, and in the absence of any firm certainty about electoral outcomes, the two key elements in this jigsaw puzzle remain the one comprehensively organised political grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Army.
There are undoubtedly those in the Army who have bet on a substantial future involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood in the governance of Egypt – a reality that other countries, notably the United States, may well have to accept with reluctance in due course. Is it the Army or simple electoral calculation which has led to actions and views being expressed by prominent members about an economic environment attractive to foreign investors, reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, and the echoing of President Obama’s view of the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinians?
Gamal Abdel Nasser frightened the daylights out of most of the West and the surrounding monarchies and dramatically changed the regional dynamic. Equally, Anwar Sadat reached a remarkable accord with Israel. Now the country is at the epicentre of the Arab Spring with its exhilarating rejection of authoritarianism and corruption. However, the best that can at present be said is that the unknown unknowns which were unleashed in Egypt in February are now known unknowns. In its long history, Egypt has all too often produced surprises, as we as a country know all too well, and the stakes today are indeed high both internally and externally.
However the only clear and present certainty is that their Islamic heritage is in the ascendant and the secular spirit which is so well illustrated by those dramatic black and white Egyptian films of the 1950s and 1960s is now indisputably in retreat. The political consequences of this have yet to be revealed.