Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Egypt Has To Show Resolve

Wrangling between Islamists and secularists is set to delay the laying of the right foundations for general elections and mar any results
By Ayman Mustafa
The latest spat between Egypt and Israel after the Eilat attack and Israeli retaliation by bombarding Gaza, and killing Egyptian soldiers across the border, reflects a real quagmire for Egypt’s transformation after former president Hosni Mubarak.
Popular opinion on the streets of Cairo was inflamed by the Israelis’ killing of Egyptians on Egyptian soil — though the same thing on many occasions in the past had gone unnoticed as the Mubarak regime suppressed it for the sake of keeping good relations with Tel Aviv. Diplomatic reaction by the interim government was chaotic, and actually shows that it’s just a quasi-Mubarak cabinet trying to use old tactics in an inefficient way.
The interim military rulers, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), were in a real dilemma. They couldn’t push the argument with the Israelis, as that would involve risking heightened tension on the eastern flank and angering Americans and even losing the mediatory role they try to play between Hamas in Gaza and the Israelis. Meanwhile, SCAF is highly sensitive to popular mood and has to accommodate the views of civil society groups dominating the scene in Egypt after the January 25 uprising that ousted Mubarak.
The problem is that the change in Egypt coincided with dramatic developments around it: an armed struggle for regime change in Libya to the west, involving western military intervention of sorts, and chaos in Sudan to the south, with Southern Sudan’s secession and other conflicts. Such regional developments would have required a firm Egyptian foreign policy and resolve to assert its position and protect the country’s vital interests, let alone its borders.
Egyptians’ resolve following the revolution would have helped the change process within that country. Applying the old tactics of Mubarak and his spy chief Omar Sulaiman is not the best way of defending Egypt’s interests. For example, post-Gaddafi Libya will be turning to Qatar to rebuild the country — which should have been in Egypt’s natural western sphere of influence. Even Sudan is seeking support from beyond Egypt: the south relies on western powers while the north looks across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Some might argue that the transitional period is limiting the options of Egypt’s interim rulers in foreign policy, but that’s not only foreign policy — it’s at the heart of national security. Ironically, the internal scene in Egypt is not much different from the foreign policy, in terms of the chaos and inconsistency. After a few days in Cairo last week, I can say that the government and SCAF are in deep trouble. The economy is not showing any signs of returning to normal — forget about improvement for now. The Central Bank is struggling to keep the Egyptian pound from falling against the US dollar and thus putting more constraints on the banking system, as an employee of a foreign bank in Egypt told me. Company profits are still falling, and those that have dealings with the outside world have been stripped of liquidity, eroding external trust in Egypt’s economic revival. Promises of financial help from wealthy countries have proved to be just that — promises, and not real action.
Politics, which seems to be the only active arena, is rather problematic as well. Wrangling between so-called Islamists and secularists is set to delay the laying of the right foundations for general elections and mar any results. The SCAF is keen to hand over power to elected civilians as soon as possible, but as the generals lack political expertise and the entire elite is a product of four decades of political ineptness, there’s a real dilemma.
The country was truly emptied of any meaningful politics and left only with mediocre politicians and a really useless elite of middle-aged Egyptians — graduates of political science and mass communication colleges in the mid-1980s, as an Egyptian writer notes — still trapped to their personal aspirations in a corrupt totalitarian regime. The most important fact here is that all this wrangling and futile activity is restricted to  no more than one per cent of Egypt’s population and the remaining 80 million have gone  back to their regular negative indifference waiting for their ‘leaders’ to change things for them.
The current situation is unsustainable, politically, economically or on other fronts including foreign policy and national security. Some are warning of a looming crisis in the next few months if the current trend continues. Nobody is ready to show resolve in pushing for a way out — anyway with any consequences will be better than adopting the same old tactics of Mubarak now in action. The first step in that direction would be — unfortunately — undemocratic; particularly ignoring the traditional elite that hijacked the popular uprising led by enthusiastic youth.
All those adopting criticism, talking and writing about “what should be done” needn’t be a concern — Egypt needs action, and now, not tomorrow. It will need resolute action to stop further deterioration on all fronts. 
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 30/08/2011
-Dr Ayman Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer

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