Tahrir Square has achieved iconic status as the epicentre of the Arab spring in Egypt. Without milling crowds, it is really an oval central reservation surrounded by Cairo’s mind-boggling traffic. An air of nervous apprehension pervades the square with fears of violence next week, with mass demonstrations planned to commemorate one year of the initial protests.
All of this severely and very directly impacts the luxury hotels which overlook the Nile just a few hundred yards away. It is a desperate time for the Egyptian economy. In the recently completed parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 45% of the vote, but the real shock was the Salafists securing 25%. The divided, disorganised secular liberal groups managed only 16%, having allowed themselves to be portrayed as irresponsible, anti-Muslim and Western poodles.
The huge total Islamist vote arose out of increased religiosity, good organisation and communications and welfare support structures, in a country where economic growth and liberalisation have not touched those countless millions who live in grinding poverty. Since Mubarak was deposed, the military [SCAF] have run the country, and by universal agreement from a functional and managerial viewpoint, very poorly. For example, a vital $3.2 billion IMF loan on very favourable terms, was rejected for unfathomable reasons. Ditto the EU and World Bank. Meanwhile foreign reserves have collapsed and the deficit may reach 12% this year.
Every political grouping realises that economic revival is crucial: nobody favours statist solutions, all express determination to banish the wholesale corruption which marked the Mubarak regime. A constitutional commission is about to be formed, primarily with parliamentarians, to determine the powers of the upper house, and most particularly the President. They are in theory meant to report in the spring, with Presidential elections on 30th June. All political parties are at present holding back on presidential endorsements, but if the Muslim Brotherhood does endorse a candidate he will have an excellent chance.
Coalition building is in full spate, with astonishing permutations. The Salafists, generously financed by rich religious supporters in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, detest the Muslim Brotherhood – yet appear to be linking up with the secular liberal Egyptian Bloc. The Muslim Brotherhood is in alliance with the secular liberal Wafd Party. As the major political party, they are also assiduously trying to create an even more broadly-based coalition under their leadership. Their spokesmen are approachable and articulate and talk enthusiastically of consensus, reconciliation and moderation. Younger secular radicals believe that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The key question is what will happen to the Army, which controls a huge part of the Egyptian economy? Most politicians want to return them to their barracks after the presidential election. But a national security council is proposed, with powers as yet unclear, but which would comprise senior military and parliamentary figures, as well as the president and prime minister. It may in practice give the military a continuing role – welcome to some.
The simple truth is that nothing about future constitutional structures or specific policies is clear at present. Well under the radar, the question is also quietly being considered as to what extent less tainted figures in the Mubarak regime, some very experienced, can be deployed in any future government. Every political party from Salafists to secular liberals absolutely and explicitly declares that domestic recovery and stability is the only issue, with no foreign policy re-definitions. None declare that the peace treaty with Israel should be abrogated. There is universal dislike of the United States, for its links to the military and the Mubarak regime. Also the French. Britain is indisputably their favoured European country.
For the 10% Christian minority, this is an extremely difficult time. Emigration looms for those with portable skills. Even within the Coptic community the ageing and unwell Pope Shenouda is not universally admired, with talented and younger articulate clergy being sidelined. However much human rights can be protected by law, social pressure is increasingly problematic and even repressive. In traditionally more Islamist Alexandria, signs on benches overlooking the sea now warn against couples sitting together. Increasingly, women feel compelled to dress in a more Islam-acceptable way. Some restaurants have stopped selling alcohol. Hoteliers, struggling to survive without foreign tourists, greatly fear these trends, with tourism providing such huge employment.
So clouds of uncertainty swirl over the country, but for all the rivalries and deep-seated political and economic problems, there is surprising optimism in political circles. It is too early to know whether or to what extent this is misplaced. Every element of the future political and institutional structures is yet to be resolved, and this vacuum is killing business confidence and any economic recovery. Egypt is the mother country of the Arab world, the epicentre of Islamic learning and culture, but it is now wholly and comprehensively fixed on its domestic condition. Its relationship with Israel or indeed anybody else outside its borders remains firmly in the long grass.
But Islamism is clearly in the ascendant. As ye,t we do not know what that will ultimately mean in practice. Will a democratic Egypt attempt to follow the paths of Turkey or Malaysia; will bread and butter issues , rather than religion, mean that the impact of the current growth of Islamisation be muted in years to come? Whilst there are assuredly large straws in the wind about this, it is too early to make a definitive judgment. As all of us on the CMEC delegation would attest, nobody should tell you otherwise.