Whose Egypt?

Adam Shatz writes: The awakening is not over, but the heady days of the Arab Spring have come to an end. The counter-revolution, Régis Debray once observed, is revolutionised by the revolution. And so it has been. In Syria, protests have degenerated into sectarian warfare, fomented by a thuggish ruling clique that seems ready to bring the entire country down with it. In Yemen, President Saleh has agreed to stand down after nearly three decades in power, but on the northern border with Saudi Arabia, the dirty war between Shia Houthi rebels and Salafists is getting nastier. In Libya, the oil companies are doing business again, but the country’s new rulers, swept to power by Nato, are talking about restoring Sharia law, perhaps even polygamy. In Bahrain, a peaceful uprising by the Shia majority has been crushed by the al-Khalifa monarchy, with help from troops dispatched by Saudi Arabia. (Tehran, the Saudis claimed, was behind the protests, an assertion rejected by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November.) Never keen on popular politics, and furious with the Americans for ‘deserting’ their mutual friend Mubarak, the Saudis have been assiduously fighting the revolutionary wave, mostly with petrodollars, sometimes with guns. The Obama administration was not pleased with the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, but it barely uttered a word of criticism: the Fifth Fleet is stationed there, and preserving the special relationship with the House of Saud is paramount.

Civil strife, sectarian warfare, repression: the forces resisting revolutionary, democratic change in the Middle East are proving tenacious. The only country to have been spared such turbulence is Tunisia, where, in an extraordinarily smooth post-revolutionary segue, the moderate Islamists of the Nahda have come to power in elections, reassuring secular Tunisians that they intend to respect the country’s progressive family code. But Tunisia has the luck of being small and peripheral. It is an island of comparative tranquillity because it barely casts a shadow beyond its borders.

Egypt, by contrast, casts a very long shadow. It has the largest population of any Arab country: some 83 million citizens. It has the Suez Canal, through which American warships are accustomed to pass at short notice. It shares a border with Israel, with which it signed a peace treaty that has allowed the Israeli army great room for manoeuvre when it has invaded its neighbours. Egypt has a very close relationship with Washington, particularly when it comes to counter-terrorism, and it has provided services that dare not speak their name, such as torture. But it has never been merely a client state. Egypt is a genuine nation, with a pharaonic history of which it is understandably proud. It has memories of leading the Arab world under Nasser, and despite the many humiliations that followed Nasser’s defeat in 1967 it has never quite given up on the idea of leading it again, as if the last four decades were just a caesura. And then there is the city of Cairo, overcrowded, grimy and a bit battered but still, in its bewildering size and wounded ambition, the cultural and political capital of the Arab world: a status it lived up to, for the first time in decades, in Tahrir Square during the 25 January revolution. The stakes in Egypt are very high.

Less than a year has passed since the uprising began, but the euphoria in Tahrir Square already seems like a distant memory. The young people who launched the revolution are still protesting, but they have been outflanked by the hard men, the soldiers and Islamist politicians now calling the shots. The Mubarak regime was replaced by a military junta, the 20-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), headed by Field Marshal Muhammed Hussein Tantawi.The Scaf has all but declared war on Tahrir, assailing protesters calling for civilian rule as ‘enemies’ of the revolution which it perversely claims to embody. On 16 December, military police officers armed with electric prods and clubs, and assisted by thugs, moved into the square at dawn. At least 14 people were killed and hundreds injured; a woman was stripped half naked and beaten in the square. The country’s newly appointed prime minister, Kamal El-Ganzoury, blamed protesters for the violence, accusing them of an ‘assault on the revolution’. [Continue reading…]

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