Revolt: A protester holds an Egyptian national flag as he and others attack the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the Muqattam district in Cairo, Egypt
By Michael Burleigh
Egypt’s brief flirtation with democracy has come to a baleful end. This ancient country with 83 million people is the most influential state in the Middle East; its capital Cairo is a cultural and religious beacon for the wider region.
And when its murderous despot of a president, former air force general Hosni Mubarak, was swept away in early 2011 after 30 years in power on a wave of popular protest, it was seen as a touchpaper for revolution, blazing a trail of dissent throughout the Middle East.
Now that the country’s military are back in charge, it raises huge questions over whether we are witnessing an end to the Arab Spring backed with such enthusiasm by President Obama and other Western leaders — and whether democracy can ever flourish in the region.
Back in 2011, optimism was unrestrained. Egypt had rid itself of its brutal military-backed regime, under which thousands of cases of torture of political opponents had been documented by human rights groups.
When Egypt's murderous despot of a president, Hosni Mubarak, was swept away in early 2011, it was seen as a touchpaper for revolution, blazing a trail of dissent throughout the Middle East
Victims had endured electric shocks, mock drownings and beatings, and had their hands forced into boiling water until the skin peeled off; men and women had been raped; and many had died at the hands of their captors.
No wonder there was such jubilation over Mubarak’s demise, which paved the way for the new president — a little-known U.S.-educated engineer called Mohamed Morsi — elected for the first time in Egypt’s history by the people.
But along with the exultation came expectation. And Morsi miserably failed to live up to the hopes of his people. He made a number of wild promises to ordinary Egyptians. The new government would purge and punish the leaders of the old order, stop the most brazen examples of corruption and improve the miserable lives of Egypt’s teeming poor.
Yet the parlous state of the economy made delivery impossible, and last year there were 5,000 public protests or strikes.
Because of the turmoil, Egypt’s 18 million tourist visitors shrank to a couple of million a year, putting hundreds of thousands of Egyptians out of work. The country’s foreign currency reserves, used to pay for imports, shrank to barely enough to keep the country going for six weeks. Foreign investors stayed away.
What was worse, Morsi’s Freedom And Justice Party — a political vehicle for the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood which put him in power — began to rule just as oppressively as the regime they replaced.
The Brotherhood, with its slogan ‘Islam is the Solution’, was founded in Egypt in 1928 and had been waiting 80 years to come to power.
During those decades, it had been banned by the secular military authorities, and its members had survived long bouts of vicious repression — including the assassination of its founder, the hanging of its leaders and jailings where gruesome torture was routine.
Since Egypt is a majority Muslim nation, albeit with ten per cent who are Coptic Christians, it sometimes suited its military strong men to allow the Brotherhood to do charitable works among the poor.
Mohamed Morsi's Freedom And Justice Party - a political vehicle for the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood which put him in power - began to rule just as oppressively as the regime they replaced
That enabled the organisation, many of whose members are engineers, doctors, teachers and scientists, to build formidable grassroots support, despite being banned from formal participation in political life.
And through stolid Morsi — a man so lacking in charisma that he is known even inside the Brotherhood as the ‘spare tyre’ — the organisation’s puppetmasters began to impose their socially-conservative agenda on Egyptian life, with threats to crack down on the wearing of bikinis in tourist resorts and the drinking of alcohol while insisting on Islamic veils for Muslim women.
He may have won an election, but Morsi had no mandate for such sweeping changes.
Last August, he used a botched counter-terrorism operation conducted by the military in Sinai to sack the entire army high command. Meanwhile, he removed the editors at 50 state-owned newspapers, while journalists dubbed ‘Pharaoh’s sorcerers’ — President Mubarak was known as the Pharaoh — were prosecuted for insulting Morsi.
Next, he took on the judiciary, which had declared the lower house of parliament unconstitutionally elected. He sought to retire 5,000 judges who mostly sympathised with the ousted Mubarak, and to replace them with Brotherhood supporters.
In November, Morsi declared that his decisions were immune from judicial review, and sacked the head of the judiciary and chief prosecutor. This seemed like a coup d’etat — behaviour that appalled huge numbers of educated Egyptians and was seen as worse than anything that happened with Mubarak.
Then, instead of focusing on economic recovery, Morsi and his party started introducing Draconian Islamic rulings. They censored all in-flight movies on Egypt Air after an MP from Morsi’s Freedom And Justice Party MP took umbrage at a soap opera about saucy housewives.
Morsi declared that his decisions were immune from judicial review, and sacked the head of the judiciary and chief prosecutor. This seemed like a coup d'etat
Then Morsi and his cohorts opened Egypt’s first ‘dry’ hotel, where men and women were segregated on different floors and by a wall down the middle of the hotel swimming pool.
Across Egypt, young people felt the creeping chill of moral puritanism. The climate was particularly frightening for young Egyptian women who felt pressure to don the hijab or to stop wearing jeans. The nation’s Coptic Christian minority also felt increasingly besieged, with many of them fleeing abroad.
And the brutality continued. ‘No legal or policy reforms were implemented to eradicate torture under... President Morsi’s administration,’ stated a report from Amnesty International.
The report claimed protesters arrested by riot police or the military were subjected to severe beatings and electric shock treatments in custody.
Meanwhile, the economy continued to go to hell in a handcart, fuel began to run out and crime rates soared, with the number of murders trebling over the past year. This was because Morsi had little time for the Egyptian police or security services — they had, after all, been responsible for jailing and torturing members of the Brotherhood — failing even to commiserate with them when officers were killed during protests.
Effectively, the police withdrew their labour when the government came under renewed pressure from protesters last week before officers openly sympathised with the regime’s critics.
Then Morsi fell out with the military. Benefiting from a $1.5 billion annual grant from the U.S., the army sees itself as the embodiment of the Egyptian nation, and the only force in the region to have fought Israel to a draw in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
In reality, the armed forces are corrupt with vested interests in the Egyptian economy, owning luxury officers’ clubs and having financial involvement in everything from cement and construction to tourist resorts.
In reality, the armed forces are corrupt with vested interests in the Egyptian economy, owning luxury officers' clubs and having financial involvement in everything from cement and construction to tourist resorts
Although their Chief of Staff and Defence Minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was appointed by Morsi because he was known as a pious Muslim, he and his colleagues refused to allow the chaos to continue — and moved to pre-empt what they claimed would be a horrific bloodbath as opponents and supporters of the President held massed rallies in Cairo.
In the suburbs this was already leading to murderous clashes between the Brotherhood’s street militias and their opponents.
The U.S. is trying to avoid using the term ‘coup’, but that is what has undoubtedly happened in Egypt, even though the soldiers have no particular desire to govern the country.
Supporters of the Brotherhood are justifiably claiming they were robbed, for — to be fair — Morsi was the democratically elected President. Some will undoubtedly swap the ballot box for bombs and guns, and terrorism will almost certainly become more of a problem for Egypt in future.
Egypt faces a deeply uncertain future and possible civil war as the Brotherhood - which will not easily give up power - plans its next move
The unpalatable fact is that the nation’s economic meltdown will continue, and living standards will fall further as the tourists continue to stay away.
But the real message of this coup is that democracy in Egypt and neighbouring countries cannot simply flourish just because a despot such as Mubarak is toppled. What is to stop the army and angry public from rudely ejecting the next democratically elected leader in Egypt if one ever takes office?
Its other significance is that this is a lesson to Western leaders who continue with breathtaking naivete to try to impose their version of democracy on the region. It shows that a democratically-elected president such as Morsi can actually be worse for the country than the military dictator he replaced.
President Obama, followed slavishly by others in the West, ‘dropped’ Mubarak for Morsi, promoting the rise of the Brotherhood — which now has tentacles worldwide, even in Britain.
By championing Western-style democracy for the country, U.S. policy has left the region in an utter shambles.
Events in Egypt will also have President Assad of Syria rejoicing for example, since the Brotherhood — along with the U.S. and Britain — backed the Syrian rebels who are trying to topple him from power. Will Foreign Secretary William Hague think it such a good idea now to get rid of Assad — appalling as he is — and replace him with another equivalent of Morsi?
Regimes throughout the region will take Morsi’s demise as a cue to crack down on their fledgling democratic movements and local Brotherhood problem, just as the UAE did yesterday by jailing 90 of the organisation’s members.
Egypt faces a deeply uncertain future and possible civil war as the Brotherhood — which will not easily give up power — plans its next move. But the broader message of this seismic event is that we in the West meddle at our peril in Middle Eastern regime change.