In Egypt it’s sometimes impossible to determine whether chaos is the work of sinister counter-revolutionary forces, or just normality. There’s a big fire almost every week – the latest being in an oil depot in Suez. This immediately sparked fears that “enemies of the revolution” were again at it.
Chaos, people say, will convince the average Egyptian that the revolution was a bad idea – with the result that he/she will vote for “stability” in the coming presidential election, or even worse, call on the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), to stay in power.
But the man touted to be the “stability candidate”, Mubarak’s former intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, has been disqualified from running by the electoral commission. He failed to gather enough endorsements required by law to run for election, and he’s launched an appeal against his disqualification.
But just in case he somehow slips through, shortly before the electoral commission’s ruling, parliament fast-tracked a bill designed to bar the likes of Suleiman from contesting the election. Parliament’s move has yet to be approved by Scaf, which will most likely refuse it, fearing it would strengthen the Islamists against an old colleague who – like them – used to be a stalwart of the Mubarak regime.
The presidential race is just one of the many battles being fought in Egypt today. The battle over the constitution has proven just as cantankerous. After months of wrangling, the matter was brought to the courts which ruled against a constituent assembly put together by the Islamist-dominated parliament which stuffed the newly created body with cronies.
More than a year after the revolution, Egypt is still without a civilian president and a constitution. And the political landscape is confused and confusing. So, what went wrong?
Many blame the roadmap imposed by the military with the blessing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of charting a new path with the drafting of a new constitution that laid down a vision for the future and new rules, according to which a parliament and a president should be elected, they both agreed to patch up the old system. But their motives in doing so were at odds.
While the military sought to salvage as much as possible of the old regime, the Brotherhood saw a historic opportunity to seize power quickly.
The Brotherhood, along with other Islamists, won the election and looked poised to rule the country. But when the military, fearing real change, refused to let them form a new government, they fell out. That’s when their opportunistic love affair came to an abrupt end.
Both apparently also failed to agree on a compromise candidate for the presidency. That’s when the Brotherhood reneged on an earlier promise and fielded its heavyweight deputy leader, multimillionaire businessman Kharait al-Shater. Suleiman, after months in the shadows, also entered the fray, prompting speculation that he was the military’s candidate.
But all that came to naught after the electoral commission disqualified both on different grounds. This too gave rise to speculation that the ruling was politically motivated. It’s one of the peculiarities of politics in Egypt today that Suleiman’s candidacy and his subsequent disqualification could both be attributed to a conspiracy of some kind, authored by the same people simultaneously.
However, it’s not only a faulty roadmap that’s to blame, but also a society in crisis sharpened and deepened by the upheaval of the revolution. The role of religion in public life continues to be the most divisive of all issues, as the Islamists push for a sharia-compliant constitution.
Old-style leftists saw in the revolution an opportunity to steer the country away from market economy, and renationalise privatised public sector companies. Neither the Islamists nor the liberals like that of course. And the young revolutionaries distrust the whole old lot: left, right and centre.
Perhaps more telling than any single dispute is the fact that all these conflicts are being played out against the backdrop of a collective lack of self-confidence when it comes to democracy and the ability of the Egyptians to make informed choices.
The blinding success of populist Islamists – who branded their secular rivals during parliamentary election campaigns as “infidels” – has been used to claim that “the Egyptians are not ready for democracy”. That was also the argument used by Mubarak for decades for running a police state, and it’s the view represented by the likes of Suleiman. They see in the Islamist ascendency a vindication of their condescending view of the people.
Close up, Egypt looks a mess. An old elite mounting a rearguard action to fend off its imminent demise. An emerging elite, fragmented and with no experience of parliamentary democracy, let alone running a country blighted with all the economic and social woes you can think of: corruption, poverty, obscene inequality, rampant unemployment, illiteracy, with a hostile military and police force on top.
The scene appears set for a disaster whichever way it goes, but the long view offers an alternative reading.
One of the immediate benefits of the revolution has been the exposure of Islamists as politicians who lie and manipulate the public like all others – such as the Islamist MP who lied about his nose job – and thereby damaged their carefully cultivated image as God-fearing do-gooders. It has also made politics very interesting and relevant to people who never bothered before. Under the constant gaze of the media, public figures, including the military, are forced to defend their actions as never before.
Egypt somehow always looks on the brink of one thing or another. Teetering is what old buildings do. And Egypt is a very old place creaking under the weight of a revolution unlike any it has seen before. But people here have grown accustomed to surviving in unimaginable conditions. Egyptians are the ultimate bricoleurs and their fledgling politicians are no exception.