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June 27, 2013 6:12 pm
As political appointments go, this one appeared either blind to history or politically tone-deaf – or perhaps both.
When he was selecting new provincial leaders this month, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, picked Adel al-Khayat as governor of Luxor. It was an odd choice, given Mr Khayat’s history: he is a former member of the radical Islamic Group, which murdered tourists in Luxor 16 years ago.
The attack, which left 62 people dead – mostly Europeans and Japanese who were visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut – was one of the bloodiest terrorist episodes in Egyptian history. It left a deep scar in Luxor.
A storm of outrage followed the appointment, although Mr Khayat was never accused of involvement in any violence. Still, in Luxor, which has been struggling to revive its tourist business since the 2011 revolution, local people vowed to prevent the new governor from setting foot in his office. Egypt’s tourism minister threatened to resign in protest.
Even the Islamic Group, which formally renounced violence in 2003 and formed a political party after the revolution, made clear that Luxor was not the best place for its man. On Sunday Mr Khayat announced he would not take up the job. “I found it necessary to hand in my resignation to preserve Egyptian blood,” he said.
To Mr Morsi’s critics, the fiasco was just another example of the political ineptitude that has come to define the brief rule of the country’s first elected president. The president and his Muslim Brotherhood organisation have brought a combination of inexperience and authoritarianism to government, shattering hopes of a new era
of democracy and prosperity, the critics say.
After a year in power, the Brotherhood is struggling to transform itself from an opaque and repressed opposition group to a credible political force. Many say Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood have failed to demonstrate that they are capable of leading a nation of 85m people enduring high levels of poverty and facing an economic crisis.
Signs of economic stress are everywhere. Dwindling foreign reserves are restricting the government’s ability to import fuel, leading to frequent power cuts and long queues at petrol stations. Public anger is rising.
Disillusioned young activists are now preparing for what they call a “second revolution” to bring oust the Brotherhood. They have collected millions of signatures in a campaign known as Tamarod , or Rebellion, which they hope will force Mr Morsi to call early presidential elections. Secular and liberal parties have endorsed Tamarod’s drive for huge protests on Sunday in front of the presidential palace. Mr Morsi has responded by drawing closer to hardline factions, including the former jihadis of the Islamic Group, who have threatened to crush those who come out on Sunday.
A speech by Mr Morsi on Wednesday, which combined veiled threats with hints of possible concessions, has failed to defuse tensions.
While angry rhetoric fills the airwaves, Egyptians are girding themselves for fresh clashes, drawing in aggrieved Islamists and armed members of the former regime.
“The possibility of heavy violence is very high,” says Khalil El-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “I think it is time for the Muslim Brotherhood to realise they cannot govern Egypt without consensus and without concessions and partnership with other political groups.”
From the early days of the transition from military rule, the Brotherhood’s mantra has been that no single political faction could govern Egypt alone. Officials argued that after decades of myopic dictatorship that neglected the poor and allowed basic services to collapse, the country’s accumulated woes required a collaborative approach. All political groups would share responsibility.
In practice, however, the group’s monopolistic political conduct has put off friends and allies while deepening the misgivings of those who never trusted it. In recent months the Brotherhood has even fallen out with the ultraconservative Islamists of the Salafi Nour party, the second-biggest force in the dissolved parliament.
Over, too, is the brief honeymoon between Mr Morsi and secular forces, who backed him in the presidential election to prevent a return of the old regime in the form of Ahmed Shafiq, a former general.
Ahmed Abdallah, a leader of April 6, an organisation at the forefront of the 2011 uprising, campaigned for Mr Morsi because “a Shafiq win would have made a mockery of the revolution”. But he and other activist colleagues are now the target of arson charges that were revived by Mr Morsi’s prosecutor-general a year after they were dropped. To Mr Abdallah, this looks like a case of payback. His group turned against the president for cracking down on protests and failing to reform the police, who have been accused of returning to pre-revolution levels of brutality.
“We are very frustrated,” says Mr Abdallah. “I have friends who were martyred in the revolution, others who lost eyes and some who we now have to push around in wheelchairs. They did not sacrifice themselves for us to live through this dark period.”
Analysts say the Brotherhood reacted to the intense pressure during Egypt’s political transition by closing in on itself and marginalising other political groups.
As it rose to electoral dominance last year, the group engaged in a power struggle with army leaders over their place in the new order under Islamist rule. The military emerged in the new constitution with its autonomy enhanced, only nominally subservient to civilian leaders.
Observers also point to another setback for the Brotherhood – the Supreme Constitutional Court’s dissolution last year of the first post-revolution parliament dominated by Islamists. The group saw the decision as the revenge of a state with deep ties to the old order intent on sabotaging rising political forces.
Stung by the loss of the assembly, the Brotherhood’s strategy has been to dominate all institutions – even if that means deepening the sharp polarisation in politics and society. Working with its Salafi allies, it railroaded a religiously tinged constitution over the objections of the non-Islamist opposition. Mr Morsi breached legal rules to appoint his own pick as prosecutor-general, a powerful official who decides which legal cases are pursued.
The widening chasm between the Islamists and their rivals has led to frequent eruptions of street violence, cementing the image of an unstable country and deferring the recovery of investment and tourism.
A draft law backed by the Brotherhood to reduce the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60 has also fuelled tensions. The move is viewed as a way of intimidating the judiciary. Other proposed laws regulating demonstrations and the political process have sparked criticism for being too restrictive and falling short of international norms. The latest battlefield is at the culture ministry, the headquarters of which have been taken over by artists and writers to protest against personnel changes ordered by a minister close to the Islamists.
“It is naive to fight on so many fronts at the same time,” says Mr Anani. “They are in power but not in control. It seems they are confronting everyone at once, from the judiciary to the media to intellectuals.”
But Mourad Ali, a Brotherhood spokesman, says resistance to Mr Morsi comes primarily from the “corrupt deep state”, followed by “opportunistic politicians” who are too weak to compete at the ballot box. Finally, there are “impatient” citizens “legitimately” venting their displeasure at the performance of the government.
“We had assumed that the opposition would stand by us against corruption,” he says. “We never imagined they would put their hands in those of corrupt people in order to undermine government. We offered cabinet positions to figures from other groups but they refused. We may have made some mistakes but we have not committed any sins.”
Still the largest and most organised political force in the country, the Brotherhood has a solid record of winning elections. Its inexperienced secular and liberal opponents have often appeared shambolic and incapable of connecting with the public. There are signs, however, that the Brotherhood’s electoral confidence may
be blinding it to the rising tide of discontent.
The result of a recent poll of 5,000 Egyptians by the US-based Zogby Research Services show that support for Mr Morsi has dropped from 57 per cent on his election last year to 28 per cent in May. Almost all his backing comes from those “who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood group”.
It was never going to be easy for a post-revolution president to steer Egypt’s unwieldy ship of state smoothly after the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule. Any new leader would have had to contend with the lingering influence of the old regime in crumbling and often corrupt institutions as well
as soaring expectations for rapid improvements in living standards.
Mr Morsi has inherited a largely dysfunctional state with a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy and an economy skewed by wasteful and unsustainable expenditure on energy subsidies. The past two years of turmoil have added to pressure on the budget, widening the deficit to almost 12 per cent of gross domestic product. Cash injections from Qatar, Libya and Turkey are barely keeping enough foreign currency reserves to cover three months of imports.
The president has been unable to conclude a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which is expected to bring in about $14.5bn from a range of external donors. Fearing the political fallout, authorities are balking at austerity measures – including the reduction of fuel subsidies – needed to secure the loan.
But the delay is damaging investor confidence and business is struggling amid a foreign currency crunch. The country owes billions to oil and gas companies. Its sovereign debt and main banks have been downgraded by rating agencies, sending them deeper into junk territory. The economic slowdown of the past two years has increased poverty and unemployment, with no sign of a turnround.
Any real steps towards securing the IMF loan appear to be suspended until the next election, for which there is no date because the election law has been rejected twice by the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Diplomats say the authorities are hoping to muddle through, perhaps with additional financial support from Qatar, until the election can be held.
In the meantime, public discontent is simmering. There are fears the tensions could boil over this weekend. The army has warned it may have to intervene and some of the president’s critics are calling for a military coup.
“I hope there will be huge protests and big popular pressure,” says Ehab al-kharrat, an opposition lawmaker. “But I am afraid of bloodshed because I care for the souls of people. If we have massive bloodshed, we could easily fall under dictatorship, again, whether military or religious.”
Salafis: A brief alliance of Islamists unravels
Tensions between Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the secular and liberal opposition became apparent very quickly after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. More recent and less expected, however, is the rift within the Islamist camp between the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis of the Nour party.
The Salafis, who had previously shunned politics, burst on to the scene after the revolution. They backed Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, in his bid to become president and worked with the Brotherhood to draft and push through a controversial constitution rejected by other political groups.
The Brotherhood and Nour, however, have fallen out in recent months, partly because of what the Salafis consider their marginalisation in government.
“We were given assurances that after Mr Morsi took over, all political forces that supported him would participate in [government],” said Abdallah Badran, a senior official of the Nour party. “Afterwards it became clear to us from the practices we saw that this was not going to be the case.”
Nour is also disappointed that once in power, the Brotherhood seemed less keen on implementing Islamic sharia law than its rhetoric had suggested. The Salafis espouse a purist interpretation of religion and are seen to be more orthodox than the pragmatic and more politically experienced Brotherhood.
The Salafis have been angered by the government’s decision to allow holidaymakers from Iran to fly into Upper Egypt to tour the country’s Pharaonic sites. Their objections have halted the much-needed trips at a time when tourism is faltering.
Mr Radwan said that Nour would not join the June 30 protests against Mr Morsi, but that would continue to work towards a solution to defuse the crisis.
Analysts say the emergence of the Salafis as a political force has added to pressures on the Brotherhood.
“They are caught between the liberal secular position asking them to give more freedoms and rights and the radical Islamists who want them to be more religiously committed,” says Khalil Anani, a political analyst. “They will not be able to satisfy everyone.”
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