Saturday, June 16, 2012

Egypt's important hour: Will democracy survive the weekend?

By Ali Ezzatyar

Nobody who has followed the Egyptian revolution would assert that it has progressed without a hitch. But with the Egyptian high court on Thursday invalidating Egypt's first democratically elected parliament and reinstating the candidacy of a former Mubarak crony to the presidency, the revolution has officially fallen off the rails. With the intentions of the previous regime and the military now clear, events of the next couple of months may prove to be among the most pivotal in Egypt's modern history, with implications for the entire region.

Since crowds in Tahrir Square lead to Mubarak's ouster over one year ago, the question of how much the rest of the former regime maintained control over the levers of power remained unanswered. There was an understanding that Mubarak was the leader and figurehead of a broader system, but still some hope remained that the old guard would choose to melt into the new democracy, rather than risk overt assertion of their arbitrary power again. The high court's recent decision is the most compelling evidence to date that the old guard is not only still there, but intends to stay, confirming the suspicions of the more pessimistic observers of the revolution both inside of Egypt and out. With the presidential run-off imminent, the future of Egypt's fragile democracy hangs in the balance.

While the Supreme Constitutional Court cited the unconstitutionality of a law allowing for partisan candidates to win seats designated for independents, there is little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood's majority was the primary motivator of the decision. This sets the stage for this weekend's elections, where the Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi will face off against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister. Even the most optimistic of Egypt's revolutionaries will be concerned that Morsi, the favorite, will be prevented from ascending to power one way or another. Even before the election has even taken place, allegations of plans for vote-rigging have surfaced from Egypt's opposition. Indeed, it would make little sense for the high court to invalidate the Islamist parliament, only for the old guard to allow the Islamist candidate to come to power; without a parliament, Morsi's power will be virtually unrivaled until a parliament is reinstated.

That leaves Egypt in the most precarious of positions; anger and resentment towards the former regime is palatable, and any result that does not see the Islamist candidate come to power will be considered a return to dictatorship. Especially after the high-court's decision, even an unlikely victory for Shafiq that is fair will be viewed as unsupportable by a majority of Egyptians. So, after almost 18 months of revolution, transition, and congregations in Tahrir Square, Egypt can for all intents and purposes revert to dictatorship again this weekend.

It takes little imagination to perceive what this could mean for Egypt. Its young project of democracy has yet to beget civil society institutions that would allow Egyptians to challenge their government in a meaningful way; that leaves coercion, and potentially violence, as the only means to break dictatorship's cold and tight grasp once again. Is Egypt ready to go back to square one, and claw its way back out of dictatorship?

The State Department's musings on the subject have produced only a vague and general response, that the tide of democracy in Egypt cannot be turned back. But it is unclear how much influence even the United States can have at this juncture, with its closest patrons within Egypt partially marginalized, and no strong alignment with Egypt's opposition, of which it is suspicious.

Too bad, because if the next few months prove to turn back the tide of history in Cairo, it will be a monumental failure for the very project of the Arab spring, with ramifications likely to be seen everywhere. Libya's factions will grow more paranoid of one another. Syrians have persisted through over a year of civil war; failure in Egypt will send an ominous sign to Syria's opposition and be a boon for Assad. There is more riding on Egypt than Egypt alone. And it all begins to come down to the next couple of weeks. Watch this space.

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