SOMETHING quite remarkable happened in Egypt last week. And no, it wasn’t Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s long-expected announcement about discarding his uniform and putting himself forward as a presidential candidate.
It was the sentencing to death of 529 people for the death of a single police officer, following a two-day trial.
That must be some kind of record. And it’s only a small part of a pattern of repression that evidently exceeds by a fairly wide margin not only what Mohamed Morsi’s deeply flawed administration was capable of, but also the level of state terror that sustained Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.
The vast number of people currently in detention does not include those responsible for up to 1,000 deaths last August, when security forces fired on crowds staging a largely peaceful sit-in in protest against the military coup that toppled Morsi, the country’s first elected president.
Morsi’s majority in the run-off vote no doubt had something to do with the fact that his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, was perceived as a representative of the old order. That order, mind you, wasn’t overthrown when Mubarak received his marching orders. The army under Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi gave the impression of channelling the popular will as it continued to wield power.
The Muslim Brotherhood was apparently caught unawares by the anti-Mubarak upsurge and remained on its fringes at best. It initially feigned a lack of interest in contesting the presidency, then changed its mind. And Morsi subsequently declared that he would govern on behalf of all Egyptians.
He signally failed to live up to that promise, but was careful not to mess with the military, which retained its autonomy and its privileges.
Part of the background to Sisi being named military chief and defence minister in August 2012 was his role as the point man of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in its contacts with the Brotherhood, a capacity in which he is said to have insinuated that he was a sympathiser.
His reputation as a devout conservative helped, and the Brothers may have been impressed as well by his handling of the controversy over the utterly reprehensible practice of conducting virginity tests on female detainees.
There can be little doubt that a substantial proportion of Egyptians were relieved by Morsi’s overthrow, and that the conduct of the Morsi administration accounted in large part for the antipathy it inspired.
For all that, it was an elected government, and voting it out of power would have aided the institutionalisation of democracy in a country that seemed eager just two years earlier to embrace the concept. Its belated designation as a terrorist outfit was clearly politically motivated.
Egypt is certainly not immune to Islamist terrorism, but surely it doesn’t require any special insight to grasp how blocking electoral avenues for Islamists might push some of them towards radicalisation and violence. Egypt’s history bears testimony to this sorry trend.
Sisi’s much remarked-upon popularity suggests that many Egyptians were sick of Mubarak after 30 years, but not entirely averse to the system he represented. Next month’s presidential election will complete its resuscitation. With the result considered a fait accompli, there is so far just one contender apart from Sisi.
The margin of Sisi’s success will be of academic interest. Mubarak unfailingly managed to achieve an official approval rating in the high 90s. Sisi may have the sense to be a little more modest — but it’s hard to tell, given that a personality cult with messianic overtones is already in place. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t wish to be perceived as another Mubarak, but welcomes unsubstantiated comparisons with Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Those may not go down too well in Egypt’s neighbourhood, where relief over the demise of the Morsi government ranged widely, from Israel and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to Saudi Arabia. Russia’s Vladimir Putin was perhaps the first foreign leader to endorse Sisi’s then undeclared presidential bid.
US Secretary of State John Kerry stopped short of unequivocal support, but Washington has long been trying to find an excuse to rescind the sanctions it felt obliged to impose after the coup.
Sisi will, it seems safe to say, be welcomed on to the international stage. What he intends to — or can — deliver in terms of easing his nation’s socio-economic stresses and strains remains to be seen.
But what are the chances that his already demonstrated proclivities towards silencing all dissent, Islamist or liberal, will be tempered by absolute power? And, more importantly, what will the majority of Egyptians do once they realise their actions and votes have paved the road back to the future?