The eyes of the mainstream media have mostly turned away from the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt, particularly as other events have transpired in the Middle East -- namely in Syria, where violence continues to cause problems not only for Syria but also neighboring countries, with violence spilling over the border.
No such armed resistance is taking place in Egypt, however, which makes it an interesting exception to both Libya and Syria, which experienced both protests and armed resistance. Egypt’s “revolution,” as many media commentators have termed it, never really occurred, despite the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The members of the army who were loyal to Mubarak still effectively control the country, and it seems they have been willing to work out deals with former rivals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood party. Was this really a revolution, or is it time for the movement to oust the entire army from its influence on politics and business?
On Monday, April 9, the Reuters news agency reported that Mubarak’s former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, decided to stand as a candidate in the coming Egyptian presidential election. One of his rivals is Khairat al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Shater was formerly imprisoned by the government in which Suleiman served, but now they are both competing for the nation’s top job. The election is due to be held in May, and both of these candidates are apparently expected to perform well, according to the Reuters report. The leading candidate at the opinion polls, however, is Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister who has spent the longest time on the campaign trail.
An “army council” effectively rules Egypt, and their favorite candidate for president is apparently Suleiman, given that he was a powerful figure in the former regime in which the army and Mubarak held sway. Suleiman claims he will be supported by Egyptians if there is a chance the Muslim Brotherhood gains a dominant role in politics. After all, there are anxieties about an end to the secular political institutions that have generally held sway in the country for many years. “Pro-democracy” activists, according to Reuters, see both the Brotherhood candidate and Suleiman as a sign that the “revolution” has effectively stalled or failed to occur, with both candidates wanting to consolidate power at the expense of democratic reforms.
It would hardly be fair to paint the Muslim Brotherhood in an entirely negative light, however. An article by Erin Cunningham on April 3 for GlobalPost describes the Muslim Brotherhood’s endeavors to hold the Egyptian army accountable for its alleged influence over the nation’s business sector. Analysts in Egypt, according to the article, state that the Egyptian army invests in and obtains revenue from tourism, elements of the food industry, the weapons industry and other manufacturing sectors -- from underwear to computer chips. Karim Radwan, a member of the Brotherhood’s executive committee, told GlobalPost that it was time for the army to end its position as a “state within a state.” The extent of the influence of the army on the nation’s economy is not really known. However, estimates have varied from as low as 5 percent to as much as 40 percent of the economy, according to the article. The chief financial officer of the army, Mahmoud Nasr, recently told reporters that the army has been “building” its projects for 33 years and that it refuses to hand over these projects for other people to “destroy.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has stated that it has formed a committee in parliament to investigate the army’s financial dealings. The army does have its defenders, however, who state that the investments are mostly small and based on guaranteeing that the army will be able to sustain its members with food, clothing and equipment. However, even if this were true, it would be against the principle of democratic accountability. Armies, after all, should be controlled by those who have been elected and should serve and defend the nation rather than their own pockets.
According to GlobalPost, the military has a history of enjoying exemptions from taxation and has received subsidies from the state. Its influence has grown to the extent that it almost has a monopoly on access to capital. Some of this was revealed in December of last year, when the military was able to prop up the Egyptian government’s finances with a massive $1 billion loan. Joshua Stacher, a professor of Egyptian politics at Ohio State University, told GlobalPost that it would be inaccurate to merely describe the Egyptian army as “purveyors of state capitalism.” It’s worse.
“The military is incredibly neoliberal. But they control access to capital; they are the gatekeepers of capital. And this is what makes them extremely powerful,” he said. Stacher stated that the Muslim Brotherhood lacks the influence, in terms of its financial and economic power, to bring the army to heel. The Brotherhood risks becoming co-opted or bribed by the army.
Egyptian youths and the Muslim Brotherhood
In an article published by Haaretz on Nov. 25, 2011, Avi Issacharoff wrote how the youthful “secular” Egyptians behind much of the revolution now face an unholy alliance between two former rivals (the Muslim Brotherhood and the army council). The youth of the revolution see the military as desiring to preserve its rule and to prevent any power transfer to the people. There have been protests as a result, with some fatalities due to confrontations with police in the streets of Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to take part in the “demonstration of a million” that was declared by secular groups largely behind Mubarak’s ousting. This is telling, because the march was in protest of the power of the army’s ruling council and how it has blocked the path towards negotiating a truly democratic constitution. The Brotherhood was more interested in consolidating its political gains and pushing for an agreement with the army council and for a presidential election to take place in June 2012.
An article by Sajida Tasneem, published by International Policy Digest on Dec. 21 of last year, paints an interesting summary of the revolutionary movement in Egypt and its challengers. The protesters do not simply want electoral reform and parliamentary democracy. People want measures to immediately be implemented in order to change lives for the better. They want decent healthcare, reasonable housing, a decent education, a living wage and a right for unions to exist without being crushed and dismantled, among other demands. Military tribunals have quashed any sense of accountability and real justice, and the protesters want an end to these, too. They want an end to people disappearing or ending up dead inside police stations. They want some form of independent media that isn’t the victim of threats or violence -- particularly if they go too much against special interests. Out of a population of 83 million, around half live either near poverty or in absolute poverty. The army has suppressed dissent, often with violence, and has criminalized labor strikes. How can the Muslim Brotherhood make deals with such people? After all, they will rightly face criticism for not living up to the name of ıslamic justice.
Amazingly, as Tasneem wrote, despite one of the most violent and massive protests that started in Egypt on Nov. 28 of last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “I congratulate the Egyptian people for a peaceful, successful start to their election process.” Days before her statement, 42 people were killed and thousands were injured by weapons that were manufactured in the United States.
In conclusion, it appears that Egypt’s “revolution” is effectively stalled. As long as the vast poverty and daily injustices are not addressed, this will only serve to discredit the elections that are set to take place. The elections will also serve to further divide Egyptians and possibly create future internal conflict -- particularly as there are those who oppose the Arab Spring and the protests in Tahrir Square. The future looks volatile and unpredictable.
*Hossein Turner is a freelance journalist based in the UK.