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Friday, 20 January 2012

13 January 2012

CAIRO -- A year is a very short time in revolutionary politics, so if anyone asks you, a year after the Egyptian revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, what the future holds in store for this country, you can confidently reply: “It’s much too soon to tell.”

Yes, the old dictatorship has gone, but the military are still in control, and democracy has not yet taken hold.

Yes, elections have taken place, but they were to choose members of a new parliament whose powers have yet to be defined.

And yes, there’s now a freedom of expression and a freedom to protest unlike anything that Egypt has seen in decades -- but dissidents are still being thrown in jail and thousands of civilians are being tried in military courts.

The big story from the elections is that the religious, Islamist parties have swept the board. As I write, the final results after a six-week election period have not yet been published -- but in broad terms it looks as if the Freedom and Justice party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, have won about 40 per cent of the vote, and the al-Nour party, representing the ultra-conservative Salafis who practise an unusually strict form of Islam, have won between 20 and 25 per cent.

That’s enough to worry a lot of secular liberals who have nightmares about Egypt turning into another Iran. Stories have started circulating of Salafi-inspired “morality police” being issued with wooden batons with which to discipline citizens who are considered to be inappropriately dressed.

But until a new constitution has been drawn up, no one can be sure just how much power these new MPs will have. One leading presidential candidate, the former foreign minister Amre Moussa, told me he favours a “French-style” presidency; the Islamist parties, on the other hand, would rather have a more powerful parliament and a less powerful president. (You can hear the interview tonight, Friday, or online or as a podcast.)

As for the military, they’re keeping their counsel these days, after being roundly criticised for suggesting that they expected to play a major role in the drafting of a new constitution. The assumption is that whoever is elected president later this year will need to have at least the tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood, without whom he probably couldn’t win, and of the military, without whom he couldn’t govern.

Here’s an anecdote from the streets of Cairo, a vignette to illustrate how different the new Egypt is from the old one. A few nights ago, we stumbled across a noisy demonstration, a few hundred students chanting slogans against the military council. We decided to record it; after all, you can never tell when these things might come in useful.

Within moments, having seen our microphone, an angry and smartly-dressed middle-aged man was berating us, in fluent English, about the idiocy of the protesters. Why didn’t they just go home and leave the military to get on with running the country?

Moments later, a second man joined in, again in fluent English, taking the opposite point of view. Tempers rose, and a crowd soon gathered. But there was no trouble, and as soon as we put the microphone away, the crowd drifted off.

Democracy in action? Not quite, perhaps. But in the Egypt that I used to know, a microphone in the street would have been regarded with deep suspicion. No one would have chanted opposition slogans, or voiced political opinions for all to hear.

Egypt is one of the most influential nations in the Arab world, even if it can’t afford to buy the sort of influence that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar enjoy. The population of Cairo alone is greater than the combined populations of Libya, Lebanon and Jordan.

That means that what happens here will matter far beyond Egypt’s shores. A smooth transition to a genuine democracy would be a powerful example in one of the world’s least stable regions.

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