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21 February, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Egypt's Revolution Is Slipping Out of Control

The mounting anger and frustration in Cairo and other main cities paint a frightening picture

Football riots in Port Said left 74 people dead. Massive protests again fill Tahrir Square and surround the Ministry of the Interior. Two elderly American tourists were kidnapped in Sinai by an armed Bedouin gang. A year after the revolution that ousted President Mubarak and raised springtime hopes of a transition to freedom and democracy across the Arab world, anger and foreboding now swirl through the streets of Cairo.

Amid growing chaos and political drift, furious crowds blame the military government for clinging to power, fight running battles in the streets with the reviled police and question whether the newly elected parliament has the power or the competence to address Egypt's mounting problems.

The frustration was all too predictable. Egypt's poor, with unrealistic expectations of an end to corruption, rising prices and the penury that afflicts the 40 per cent of the population who are below the poverty line, are angry, disappointed and impatient. Far from improving over the past year, their conditions have worsened sharply. Prices have risen, wages fallen and jobs have disappeared. Egypt's growth rate fell last year from 5 to 1 per cent. Foreign direct investment has plunged catastrophically from $6.4 billion in 2010 to $500 million last year. Foreign currency reserves have dwindled from $36 billion to $10 billion, and Egypt is now facing a fiscal crisis, with a budget deficit of 10 per cent of GDP.

Most worrying of all, tourism, the lifeblood of so many small traders and service providers, is fast disappearing. Only the beaches of the Red Sea Riviera seemed immune from trouble, with tourist numbers holding up in Sharm el-Sheikh. But the kidnapping of two Americans returning to the city from an excursion and the recent shooting of a French tourist in the city when four masked robbers traded fire with the police will inevitably take their toll.

Everywhere in Egypt suspicion is growing - of the 8 million-strong Coptic Christian minority, of the newly resurgent Islamist hardliners, of the Government and of the West. Ominously, the riot in Port Said is being blamed by many on instigators working secretly for the military authorities to stir up trouble. Conspiracy theorists - plentiful in the Arab world - allege that secret agents deliberately incited violence to give the Government an excuse to reimpose the state of emergency and crack down on the daily anti-Government protests. And ordinary Egyptians, despite their contempt for the police, are now blaming them for not doing enough to fight the recent crime wave, which has seen a string of bank robberies, personal attacks and street crimes that were rare in Mubarak's day.

Responsibility for all this rests on the elderly and decorated shoulders of Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, head of the ruling Military Council. His reticence and dithering lack of leadership have convinced many people that his only goal is to ensure that ultimate power still remains with the military, whatever government comes to power. But Egyptians now want to know when he will hand over power to the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the largest party in the elections and is clearly entitled to lead a new government.
So far, however, no one knows who are the leading figures in the Brotherhood, what their policies will be and whether they will form a coalition with the more hardline Salafist party Nour, which won up to a quarter of the votes and is violently fundamentalist and Islamist. How would a new government led by the Brotherhood deal with Egypt's economic problems? Would it begin a puritanical programme to make the country more Islamic as a way of diverting attention from the daily material difficulties? And would it adopt a tough anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israel policy? If so, that could be dangerous, and could forfeit the current generous aid Egypt enjoys from the US and the support from Saudi Arabia.

Egypt's revolution seems to be going down the classic route followed by other such political upsets. The initial euphoria gives way to impatience and then anger as the early hopes are not realised. The new rulers come to power promising new freedoms, but quickly run into opposition, crack down on protest and often, in the end, cast aside earlier promises and set up a government more dictatorial than the one they replaced.

What should the West and the rest of the outside world now do to stop Egypt's revolution turning into a new dictatorship? Many Egyptian liberals, students and women's groups are already worried about the way things are going. But they do not want the West to intervene: America's close support for the former Mubarak regime has made even liberals deeply suspicious of the West's motives. Washington is therefore keeping publicly quiet about developments, while privately urging the military to speed up the transition to democracy. Western governments are maintaining levels of aid and trade, but private investors are wary. There is, above all, the example of Iran that frightens the outside world. If the Islamists adopt policies as extreme or anti-Western as Khomeini did after the downfall of the Shah, Egypt could change from being a pillar of regional stability and predictability to becoming a new threat to Middle East peace. Israel, for one, is watching with anxiety.

One prominent Egyptian liberal has already voiced his anxieties in a new book that gives the inside story of the last 18 days of the Mubarak regime. Abdel-Latif Menawy, the former head of Egyptian state television who lives now in London, has twice been asked to return as minister of information, but fears for the future of democracy. He says religious intolerance is growing, freedom of information far from secure and corruption as bad as ever.

His book reveals how, in the final days of Mubarak, the regime became completely isolated from the people that it did not know how to react to the turbulent events. He relates that on the final day, Egypt and the world were kept waiting for three hours before the announcement of the President's resignation because his wife Suzanne was refusing to leave the presidential villa. On the point of departure from Cairo with her sons, she left the helicopter to return home. Three hours later the guards found her weeping on the floor of the villa, surrounding by the trinkets and records of her lifetime. Guards had to carry her round to gather her belongings before she agreed to return to the airport, and the signal could be sent to the television station to broadcast the resignation announcement.

Menawy said he refused to broadcast propaganda during the revolution, but realised Mubarak would have to go. He drafted the resignation speech for Mubarak in the final days, but Gamal, the president's ambitious son who had hoped to inherit his office, changed it at the last moment and excluded the offer to resign. It was not until the army high command put pressure on the president that he agreed the vice-president should announce that the army was taking over.

His book is an insight into the way absolute power had made all Egyptian officials frightened to inform the President of the national mood. It is a warning to all isolated and embattled regimes in the Arab world. It is a pity Syria, Libya or Yemen did not have senior television journalists with a similar commitment to freedom and democracy.

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