January 12, 2014 4:10 pm

New constitution, old restoration

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Egyptians this week vote on a new constitution, drawn up under military tutelage after July’s coup d’état against the elected but deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi. The referendum, billed as the springboard to a democratic future, risks becoming a warrant for coercive military populism – a restoration of the security state Egyptians thought they had overthrown when they brought down President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

There is no question that millions of Egyptians wanted the Brotherhood out. Mr Morsi presided over a paranoid and sectarian administration, trying to pack institutions such as the judiciary with Islamist loyalists, and answering to a parallel government run by the Brothers rather than to Egypt’s citizens. Democratically elected he may have been, but he serially failed fundamental democratic tests.

Yet the epic remobilisation of the Tahrir battalions against his government has, in effect, been hijacked by the generals, accompanied by a wave of popular adulation of Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, army chief and defence minister.

Gen Sisi, giddied by the masses, clearly feels the hand of history on his shoulder. Casting himself in the mould of Egypt’s pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, he looks set to seek the presidency in elections due later this year as part of his nominated government’s road map to democracy, which so far is nothing of the sort.

This government, overriding liberals in its ranks, has revived essential elements of the Mubarak-era secret police, put generals back in charge of provincial government and banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The security services have not only been shooting and jailing Islamists, shutting their media and sequestering their considerable assets. They have driven the Brotherhood underground, the surest way to incite the terrorism the army says it is fighting.

This constitution enshrines the power and privileges of the armed forces, alongside new laws severely curtailing freedoms of assembly and expression. Liberals, leftists and independent Islamists have been jailed in the run-up to the referendum, even though the new charter will easily triumph in the present climate of hysteria against the Brothers.

Yet the record shows military officers and army-backed leaders in Egypt and across the Arab world have left their societies in the debris of ideological bankruptcy. In all these countries there is a poverty of institutions (the army is the principal institution in Egypt), and a winner-takes-all culture of zero-sum politics, common both to the old order and its Islamist challengers. Fragmented secular forces have either been buffeted between them or, as in Egypt now, mostly sided with the army as the ostensibly lesser evil.

Egypt deserves better than the military populism that has blighted its citizens’ prospects. It is salutary to remember that when Nasser took power almost 60 years ago, Egypt had more or less the same income per capita as South Korea; now it ranks alongside El Salvador, Kosovo and Swaziland. While a range of complex problems lies behind that outcome, military rule can hardly be seen to have been their solution.

Egypt obviously needs to restore security to reboot its prostrate economy. But that is not the same thing as restoring the security state, and criminalising up to a quarter of the population. Egyptians urgently need to forge a new consensus, to rebuild the nation and its Potemkin institutions. Liberals and leftists, nationalists and secular youth, as well as younger Islamists eventually chastened into a more inclusive democratic culture, will sooner or later see through the sham prospectus of secular benevolent despotism.

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Letter in response to this editorial:

Democracy is hard to introduce if there is no liberty / From Mr Gregory Shenkman

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