Friday, 25 May 2012

25 May 2012

It may well be that the most significant political event of the week was neither the euro-summit dinner in Brussels on Wednesday (nothing happened), nor the latest twist in the Leveson-BskyB-Hunt-Cameron saga yesterday (although that's still a story with mileage in it, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on).

 For my money, the first round of the presidential elections in Egypt should get top billing, simply because the potential ramifications are so far-reaching. As of this morning (Friday), with about one-fifth of the votes counted, it looks as if the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed Mursi, is in the lead, with the Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in second place. But of course much can change in the coming hours.

Whoever finally emerges as president of Egypt will immediately become one of the most powerful figures -- no, make that the most powerful figure -- in the Arab world. If it is indeed Mr Mursi, he will eclipse the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the world's most influential Islamic political leader. If it's Mr Shafiq, or the other leading secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, who seems to have done much better than many observers had expected, Egypt will be seen to have turned its back on the tide of Islamism that has swept across much of the region over the past 18 months.

Why does Egypt matter so much? Well, just look at the numbers: with a population of 81 million, it's considerably bigger than all the other Arab spring countries put together (Libya 6.3m; Tunisia 10.5m; Syria 20.4m; Yemen 24m). But it goes far beyond that. Egypt has a history stretching back more than five millennia to the times of the pharoahs. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo has long been regarded as the seat of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. And every head of the Arab League since its inception in 1945, with one brief exception, has been an Egyptian.

 Egypt under President Anwar Sadat was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. It has played a crucial role over many years in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, and between the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. It is also, along with Saudi Arabia, the most important US Arab ally. So Egypt does matter. But even when the results of these elections are confirmed -- and even when the second round run-off between the two leading candidates has taken place next month -- there will be huge doubts about the future direction of the country.

For one thing, the precise powers of the new president remain to be defined. Attempts to draw up a new, post-Mubarak constitution have not yet borne fruit -- and you can be sure that the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the newly-elected parliament, will want to make sure that its MPs count for much more than they did in the ineffectual Mubarak-era parliaments.

And then, of course, there's the army. They have grown used to having things their own way, first under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, and then, post-revolution, as the country's interim rulers. So there's going to be a huge fight over how much power, whether overt or behind the scenes, the generals hang on to. (Remember Turkey, where for decades the military were the major hidden power, making and breaking governments almost at will.)

So what about the revolutionaries? Those hundreds of thousands of mainly young Egyptians who poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo early last year, forcing out Hosni Mubarak, and -- so they hoped -- ushering in a bright new dawn for their country.

It would be, to say the least, a poignant irony if the two leading candidates to be the first democratically-elected president in Egypt's history turn out to be a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, which played no part in the early days of the revolution, and a man called by his critics a "remnant" of the old order, much derided as a throw-back to the bad old days, and seen as epitomising everything the uprising was meant to be against.

To some, that would be the nightmare scenario, leading to a deeply divisive second round poll, in which the military, the old guard and the secular would line up against the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. There's a lot hanging on the next few weeks -- because the Egyptian revolution is not yet over.

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