When Mohamed Bouazizi, a street peddler from Sidi Bouaziz, set himself on fire after a dispute with local authorities on the 17 December 2010, little did we know that it will spiral into a major regional political upheaval to seismic proportions. Like a pack of cards, regimes like those in Egypt and Libya collapsed under the weight of unprecedented protests. The watchword from the political corridors in the West was “regime change”; a convenient synonym for the birth of Democracy in the Middle East. It is now half a decade since that fateful day, but the timeline hardly makes good reading for the prophets of Democracy.
During the periods of interregna in the Middle East, Egypt appeared to be the blueprint for the new found Democracy that the Western powers were trying to showcase in the region. So when Hosni Mubarak, one of the strongest allies of the West handed his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; albeit reluctantly, the expectation was that the transition would be effortlessly seamless.
Six years ago this month, the Egyptian people voted in the 2nd round of a presidential run-off election, in which Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won by a narrow margin of 51.7 percent of the votes. But like all dictators under construction, Morsi granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the nation and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts. Dictatorship was looming, protests followed and the West was quick to sniff out the potential mistake of allowing Morsi to get his way. This was against the background of the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the emergence of the now “notorious” “Islamic” State. As one would expect, the situation was not palatable to the political taste buds of the West. This was not in the script and the rest is history.
The coup d’état that followed saw Morsi deposed and imprisoned, paving the way for Chief Al Sisi to run for president. What strikes most observers as politically hypocritical is the fact that Morsi, a democratically elected president was unseated by an unelected and an undemocratic means. The world-wide condemnation that usually accompanies such political sacrileges, was silently deafening by any standard. Many would conclude that this deafening silence that followed the removal of Morsi was a mark of political expediency. From that standpoint, the kind of atmosphere that was brewing in the Middle East was seen as a recipe for disaster. Notwithstanding Morsi’s dyed in the wool persuasion of the Muslim Brotherhood, his apparent sympathy for other religious groups did not appear to sit well with Western interests in the region.
Considering that all these political gymnastics was taking place simultaneously with other Middle East countries on fire, some observers will conclude that the society for self-preservation had little option but to back Al Sisi. It was back to the drawing board for America and its allies. The rallying cry for democracy was changed from regime change by democracy to global coalition against terrorism. Egypt’s strong public support for the U.S and its allies’ campaign against “Islamic” State catapulted it as the premier U.S partner in the Arab world; and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was anointed as the most qualified to deal with this global threat in the region. The message of moderation across the Middle East was to be trumpeted against the backdrop of Islam’s 1,300-year old rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
With much of its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt frozen after the army overthrew President Mohammad Morsi, a leader of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement, the US was eager to kick-start its strategic relationship with Cairo; with $575 million released in assistance for Egypt’s military. No objections were raised by US lawmakers during two days of hearing with Secretary of State john Kerry, for the proposed $ 1.3 billion military assistance package. Their silence was the clearest sign yet that Congress was lining up behind President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he takes on Islamic State (IS) and other Islamists.
But since Washington and Cairo renewed their political marriage vows, the world has witnessed how the latter has appeared to trample on the very brickwork of Democracy as we know it. One of the cornerstones of democracy is the right to free speech and the freedom of it. As if to make a point, the Egyptian government tried three journalists from the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network and 17 co-defendants for allegedly conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the Egyptian state. As a marker that all bets are off, an Egyptian court sentenced to death more than 180 members of the Brotherhood for allegedly attacking a police headquarters in southern Egypt and killing an officer and a civilian (the Wall Street Journal, 22 June, 2014).
During the Arab Spring, Egypt was seen as the harbinger that was going to show case the new found spirit of democracy in the region; post Ghaddafi-Mubarak eras. Isis, terrorism, the religious configuration and sectarian factions formed the backdrop for all future collaboration with the West. In sending a message to Egypt’s military overlord that U.S.-Egypt strategic relations are vital and that America wants Egypt back in its fold, the secretary could be seen as fuelling the rise of another Mubarak, with enormous consequences for whether young Egyptians, whose ranks are swelling, choose violence or democratic methods to realize their collective goals. “There is a military coup in the country.” And he is right. Sure, millions did take to the streets to protest Morsi’s government, arguing that he “betrayed the values of the revolution” and engineered “a coup against the spirit of Tahir.” But the former Egyptian leader’s tenure was not terminated through electoral challenge, or by the kind of legislative dysfunction on display recently in Washington, involving a system of checks and balances designed to paralyze an overzealous chief executive. Morsi, a civilian, was toppled by Egypt’s armed forces.
So what have we learnt from the Morsi-Al-Sisi experiment? First, it is unquestionable that Democracy is the best form of government; but that introducing it to foreign climes should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. Secondly, against the kind of the toxic mix of religion and tribal alliances sprinkled with a dose extremism, Democracy in that region is always going to be an unachievable task. The politics in the Middle East has always been practised along the lines of tribal and religious configurations. To preach plain democracy in its pristine and unadulterated form would hardly survive.
Al Sisi may be the best thing that happened to US foreign policy in the Middle East since McDonald but there is a fundamental need to keep the reins on, if democracy is to be sustained. America and the West have interests to protect in the Middle East. The world needs peace in the face of increasing terrorism. Al Sisi may be one of the best disciples to take the gospel of democracy to this region. But in the pursuit of this, it is important the West keep the reins to avoid marginalising the very people for whom democracy was prescribed as the best medicine. The people of Egypt would feel let down if their government is allowed to run roughshod over their fundamental rights; the pursuit of which vigils were held in Tahir square.
May the last man please turn the lights off before they leave the room?