Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Egyptians Renegotiate - With The US, Israel And Themselves

By Faisal Al Yafai
                                                                          Supreme Military Council of Egypt
How much can a country change in a single year? On the anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's fall from power, Egypt is still convulsed daily by protests. Sit-ins in Tahrir Square continue. Relations between "the Square", which is shorthand for the Egyptian public that supports the protests, and the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) are tense and characterised by mutual mistrust. The stability and calm sought by the outside world is a work in progress.
Yet beneath the surface, decisive changes have taken place in the past 12 months. There is a tension at the heart of the Egyptian revolution between making cosmetic changes - arguably elections, and even a new president - and genuine, deep-rooted change.
Egyptians, even those who do not support the Square, are in favour of fundamental change. The Scaf generals are now torn between the Square and the newly elected parliamentarians, who are also uncertain. No decisions can be taken without regard to Tahrir. That, certainly, is new.
This three-way struggle continues daily. What is happening is a systematic renegotiation of the social contracts that have held Egypt firm (for which, read: stagnant) for decades. In this mix is the tentative renegotiation of the close relationship with the United States and, by proxy, the peace treaty with Israel. A more democratic Egypt will bring closer alignment between the wishes of the people and state policy.
In this climate, everything is political. The violence that followed a football match earlier this month escalated into days of clashes and riots - all aimed at the military, which protesters accused of orchestrating the violence. The Supreme Council is in a bind: the generals seem to be looking for ways to transfer to civilian rule while keeping intact as much of the old guard as possible. But the Square has set as its target that very system.
The presidential election, previously scheduled to begin in June, has been brought forward, with nominations to be accepted in March. In itself, a change of two or three months isn't meaningful, but what it represents is significant: the people have spoken.
In other ways, too, the rules of the game have been altered from a year ago. In the past two weeks, Egyptian activists launched a campaign on social networks to boycott companies owned by the army. Activists argue that military-run companies deprive the economy of investment and competition. By naming companies owned by the generals, they hope to further pressure Scaf, while raising awareness of the real role of what is often described as the "deep state".
This is a brave step, inconceivable a year ago, because information about these companies is considered a military secret. It is a further demonstration of how much Egyptian society has changed, and how the previous social contracts are being rewritten.
This renegotiation is not a mere metaphor for social change. Last month, the UAE's Damac Properties settled a dispute with the Egyptian government over the value of land purchased by the company during the Mubarak era. Several other companies have also been involved in the review of contracts after protesters objected to deals struck during Mubarak's rule.
The Supreme Council is not stationary in this situation, even if its acts are sometimes opaque. A mass raid on 17 NGOs at the end of last year has led to the detention and possible prosecution of 43 foreigners, including 19 American citizens. The arrest of these citizens prompted US government officials to suggest the estimated $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) annual aid package to Egypt might be in jeopardy. In response, Cairo cancelled a high-ranking army delegation, in a diplomatic row that would have been extremely unlikely in the Mubarak era.
This may be an elaborate bluff on Scaf's part, an attempt to exert some leverage over the United States, which at least in public has been supportive of the protest movement. Or it may be an attempt to pander to public opinion; Egyptian society is generally suspicious of the intentions of the United States, which was the primary patron of the Mubarak regime.
Yet this may be a bluff on both sides. No institution in Egypt is closer to the United States than the army. For Washington, there is no real question of withdrawing aid, which is the cornerstone of US policy in the region. Aid has always been the price the US government had to pay for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, to placate Cairo as Israel continued its occupation of Palestinian land.
But what is happening is that the generals - slowly, tenuously, pushing back when they can - are being forced to listen to what the Egyptian people are saying. This is not a perfect system: the people of Tahrir have no formal mandate and parliamentary elections have, in the minds of many, supplanted their political role. Better, ideally, for Egypt to speak through the ballot box.
But with the army still in charge and electoral politics still being defined to offer as many Egyptians as possible a voice in public affairs, Tahrir Square remains the megaphone through which the people - a large proportion of the people, at least in spirit - can speak and demand that the generals listen. That is a sea-change from a year ago. Egypt may not be stable, but these days is far from stagnant.
-This commentary was published in The National on 14/02/2012  

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