The Egyptian Crucible, Project Syndicate

Illustration by Paul Lachine, property of the NewsArt organization and of its artistAs Egyptians tensely awaited the results of their country’s presidential elections, a thread of pessimism ran through the discourse of the young people and secular liberals who had brought down Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. The “anything is possible” sensation of the Tahrir Square rebellion had faded, and now two candidates whom the protesters deeply opposed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, and Ahmed Shafiq, a factotum of the old regime (and of the current military government), prepared to face off in the second round.

The triad of fundamental forces driving Egypt since the beginning of the Arab Spring – the military, the mosque, and the masses in Tahrir Square, each with different types of power and interests – was thus broken. Those who filled Tahrir Square 16 months ago were silenced, and the expected transfer of power from the military to a civilian, democratic government was thrown into doubt.

Since assuming power after Mubarak’s fall, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a defense minister for two decades under Mubarak, has consistently undermined the delicate work of democratic transition. The week before the presidential elections, the SCAF-allied Constitutional Court dissolved the recently elected parliament, alleging illegality in the voting process. And, foreseeing Morsi’s victory, SCAF assumed all legislative powers; severely limited the president’s powers; seized the authority to appoint the committee tasked with drafting the new Constitution; took control of the country’s budget; and claimed sole power over domestic and foreign security.

As a result, Egypt’s power struggle will continue, with the junta no longer battling those in Tahrir Square, but political Islam. After a decades-long clandestine (although tolerated) existence within Egyptian society, Islamist forces were able to take advantage of the Tahrir protests, despite playing no integral part in them. The secular liberal forces’ political fragmentation and lack of organization cost them dearly in the parliamentary elections six months ago, and, in the second round of the presidential election, a majority of Egyptians chose Morsi over a restoration of the old regime.

But Morsi’s narrow margin of victory (just 3.5 percentage points) over Shafiq, and low voter turnout – 46.4% in the first round and 51.8% in the second – reflect a polarized, exhausted society that lacks confidence in the electoral process and the candidates. Moreover, the outcome has merely fueled further uncertainty about Egypt’s direction.

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