Egypt: grappling with old, and new problems

Developing Just Leadership

Ayman Ahmed

Rajab 22, 1434 2013-06-01

News & Analysis

by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 4, Rajab, 1434)

June marks a grim anniversary for the people and armed forces of Egypt. While Egyptians deal with that grim legacy they are faced with fresh problems in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.

For the people and armed forces of Egypt, June marks a particularly grim anniversary that they would rather not recall. Forty-six years ago (June 1967), in what came to be called the Six-Day War, the Zionists wiped out the Egyptian and Syrian air forces in the first strikes before occupying the remainder of Palestine (West Bank and Jerusalem, which they had not occupied in 1948), capturing both from Jordan; the Golan Heights from Syria; and the Sinai Peninsula including the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Without air cover, Egyptian and Syrian soldiers were left as sitting ducks; the Zionists massacred them in the thousands.

How did this come about when between them, the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces far outnumbered the Zionists? Tensions had escalated between Egypt and Israel following a rhetorical tit-for-tat between the two. Enter the Americans to “cool” things down. President Lyndon Johnson assured Egyptian President Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasser that if he refrained from launching an attack on Israel, he would give assurances that the Zionists would not start a war. Lulled into complacency, Nasser and his Arabian allies lowered their guard. So taken up were the Egyptians by Johnson’s “assurances” that when the Israeli Air Force attacked Cairo in the early hours of June 6, Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Hakim Amer, head of the Egyptian armed forces, was on a plane returning to Cairo.

With the Egyptian Air Force wiped out, the Zionists committed war crimes by killing fleeing Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. An American ship, the USS Liberty, monitoring Israeli operations from the Mediterranean was also attacked. Israeli warplanes bombed the American ship for nearly two hours killing 34 sailors and injuring 171 others. The ship had clear markings and was flying the American flag. The ship’s crew repeatedly signaled to the Israelis to stop attacking, without success. The Israelis did not care. Johnson was then pressured by the Zionists to say the Israeli attack that killed American citizens was a “mistake.”

One other point worth mentioning before we move to the present is the conduct of the Jordanian regime and military. When Israeli troops attacked the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Jordanian army fled without firing a shot. Masjid al-Aqsa, the first qiblah of the Muslims, was unceremoniously surrendered to the Zionists. Jordan is an artificial entity that was carved out of Palestine (itself a province of Syria at the time) by the British in 1922. This was the time when Britain, together with France, was dividing the Muslim East as part of its colonial agenda. Jordan did what it was created for: to act as a buffer for the Zionist entity and protect its interests. King Husain of Jordan was a British agent and later became a CIA agent. Former US President Jimmy Carter has confirmed that Husain was paid $1 million a year by the CIA. Husain repeatedly betrayed the Arab cause and sided with the Zionists in return for protection for his family rule. His son and successor, King Abdullah II is continuing the tradition of treachery of his now-deceased father and indeed of his forefathers.

Let us fast forward to the present and focus on Egypt, which has undergone a major change on the political front. The long-entrenched dictator, Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power on February 11, 2011 but the political landscape remains precarious. Remnants of the old regime as well as their foreign sponsors and backers have not given up. This unholy alliance is busy preventing the people’s aspirations from being realized. President Mohamed Mursi has also made several mistakes thereby losing some support among the people.

Many important institutions are still controlled by remnants of the old regime. These include the judiciary, the media as well as large segments of the business community that were beneficiaries of the old system. While the judiciary continues to frustrate the aspirations of the people, the media creates an atmosphere of uncertainty by distorting reality. A number of foreign players are also involved in Egypt’s internal affairs. They finance political groups and media outlets to prevent the country from settling down. The US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the principal foreign entities fishing in Egypt’s troubled waters to keep pressure on Mursi and his government.

Some reports say that 70 % of funding for Egyptian media comes from sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis finance their salafi followers who insist on the most archaic and narrow interpretations of Islam. The Salafis not only have their own political party but have also penetrated al-Azhar and even the Ikhwan, the party from which Mursi emerged. Thus, they have created a niche for themselves within the structure of Egyptian society that is facilitated by easy money from Saudi Arabia.

Given Egypt’s precarious economic situation, the Salafis enjoy considerable advantage over rival political forces, as do the foreign entities that have cash. This is what gives the Saudis, the Qataris and the Americans such big clout in the new Egypt. Continued political agitation has prevented the economy from being stabilized. Industrial production remains low and tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy, has not picked up. Tourists can hardly be blamed for not rushing to Egypt where there is so much uncertainty. In any case, the new dispensation may not be able to coexist with the kind of behavior that Western tourists display. It is quite revealing that the new rulers of Tunisia, for instance, have had to make humiliating compromises by saying they will not interfere with Western women going around in bikinis on Tunisian beaches!

Despite difficulties elsewhere, Mursi’s government has made some progress in the critical agricultural field. Two factors have contributed to this. First, many farmers that had joined the protests returned to work; second, by ensuring enough water for farmers, wheat production has increased from 3 million tonnes to 10 million this year. This is a remarkable achievement for a country totally dependent on bread that is the staple diet of most Egyptians. Mursi had promised to ensure quality bread in the first 100 days of his presidency. He barely managed that because despite providing good quality flour to bakeries, many bakers sold it at a higher price and continued to provide poor quality bread to the people. With improved agricultural production, this problem may now be eased somewhat.

Mursi’s real challenge lies elsewhere: how to break from the stifling embrace of the US that has its tentacles in almost every aspect of life in Egypt. In addition to the financial blackmail, the Americans are also financing political parties as well as numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), most of them unregistered, and therefore illegal. Some months ago, when the government tried to register their status, there was much noise by the US government and media. In the US even legally registered charities have been shut down because they were providing help to Palestinian widows and orphans. Their directors have been sentenced to long jail terms. In Egypt US-backed NGOs want to operate outside the framework of law.

Mursi may be seeking help elsewhere to ease US/Saudi pressure. His visit to China last year and another one earlier this year to Russia for discussions with Kremlin leaders have led to speculation that he is opening up space for himself. Whether this will bring any tangible results is too early to tell. Russia used to be the principal backer of Egypt until Anwar al-Sadat abruptly sent all Russians packing in the early 1970s as Egypt went into the stifling embrace of the US. This led to Egypt abandoning all resistance to the Zionists and surrendering its sovereignty to the US-Zionist duopoly.

On the internal front, his greatest challenge is ideological. Mursi faces assault from two opposing camps: the secularists and the Salafis. The secularists operate as political parties or occupy important posts in the judiciary. The religious challenge from Salafis is more difficult to confront because they are present within the ranks of the Ikhwan as well as in the more prestigious al-Azhar University. The current Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb is not a Salafi; he comes from a Sufi background but there are many Salafis within al-Azhar’s inner circle who are not likely to concede ground so easily.

The Salafis have two pet projects: obsession with rituals — length of men’s beards and niqab for women — and indulging in sectarianism especially against the Shi‘is. While there are few Shi‘is in Egypt, the Salafis have gone berserk over the news that Iranian tourists may start visiting Egypt. They have shown no such concern for the thousands of Israeli Zionists coming to Egypt every year but heaven forbid if the Iranian Shi‘is were to set foot in the land of the pharaohs. Dr. Mohamed Imara, a pro-Saudi scholar leads the anti- Shi‘i crusade in Egypt. He also writes for al-Azhar’s magazine and misses no opportunity to berate the Shi‘is and Iran’s alleged plan to take over the Muslim East. Petro-dollars work wonders for sectarian propaganda. Imara is not alone. There are a number of other Salafi shaykhs as well; they occupy important positions inside al-Azhar.

The Mubarak era judges are another source of problem for Mursi. They have frustrated the people’s aspirations every step of the way. They disbanded a legally elected parliament last year because of a technicality and they are holding up approval of the constitution because the old law says they must approve it. Mursi has hit back. He proposed a couple of months ago to limit the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60. This would have weeded out a number of judges enabling Mursi to appoint more suitable candidates that would not frustrate every effort at moving the country forward. The judges have taken refuge behind the pretext that their independence is being undermined. While independence of the judiciary is vital, they have blocked approval of legislation and frustrated the people’s will.

The constitution that was drafted and approved by the Constitutional Assembly last December remains in abeyance. The judges insist they must review it before it can be implemented. Out of some 250 articles, only 10–15 articles are in dispute but the judges are stalling. This prevents the holding of elections to the People’s Assembly (the earlier one was dissolved by the judges on a technicality by using the military) and therefore, no new legislation can be passed.

It is interesting to note that Mursi’s opponents frequently demand his resignation and fresh presidential elections but they would not support holding parliamentary elections. Most observers believe the secularists and their fellow travelers will be soundly defeated if elections were held. This was already demonstrated in election to the now dissolved assembly. While Mursi has lost some support since then, the party that backs him still enjoys solid support among the masses because of the social work it has done over several decades.

More than two years after Mubarak was driven from office, the Egyptian revolution remains in a limbo. It is increasingly beginning to look like a change of face.

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