Norman Warner on not forgetting Egypt in the Middle East tinderbox
While Syria understandably continues to grab the news headlines, strategically we should be paying full attention to what is happening in Egypt.
Earlier this summer, during Ramadan, I led a small group of UK and Irish Parliamentarians to Cairo for discussions with key Egyptian interests. We struggled to reconcile the different stories and left very pessimistic about the future.
According to the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi was democratically elected in fair elections but inherited an economic mess from a discredited autocratic regime which relied on the army and a deep security state apparatus. This deep state and its bureaucratic supporters were hostile, refused to obey orders and sought to thwart the new President – almost from day one. He tried to reach out to liberals, technocrats and others to broaden the base of his government but most rejected his overtures. Morsi was never given the chance to complete the constitutional changes promised because the judiciary had delayed authorisation of new election laws for parliamentary elections proposed by the newly elected Sura (Upper House). The media were hostile to the new regime and terrorism stories linked to the Brotherhood increased. Morsi replaced the army’s old guard only to have his appointee General al-Sisi remove him from office with little notice on 3 July.
Opponents of Morsi tell a different story. His election victory was narrow and he had no mandate for his actions, which were directed at creating an Islamic state. He altered the constitution, tampered with the judiciary and put Brotherhood placemen in many government posts. He excluded competent people from government, rejected advice and was reluctant to broaden the base of his government. The economy deteriorated further, with high inflation, fuel shortages and frequent power cuts; and the terrorist threat increased. Concerns led to a petition for the removal of Morsi, organised by Tamaroud with business funding and which millions signed – estimates vary from 11 to 33 million signatures (from Eqypt’s population of 85 million). This petition led to huge street demonstrations of public anger across the country on 30 June which, so they say, left General Sisi with little alternative but to remove President Morsi from office on 3 July.
There is little common ground in these two narratives. So the last day of Ramadan saw our delegation talking to people in the Rabaa Al-Adaweih street protest camp, as its 50,000 occupants were preparing their Eid celebrations. Some were not Muslim Brotherhood supporters but the chanting was deafening: “Morsi elected, Sisi rejected”. The atmosphere was like a family festival.
Talking to large groups of excited but friendly people from all over Egypt, it was clear why they were there. For the first time in their lives they had voted freely for a leader of their choice; and they didn’t want men with guns removing that choice. Since then, at least 300 of these people have been killed by the police and security forces using live ammunition; while others have simply disappeared. Many of the victims were women and children.
To the outsider the evidence suggests that Morsi was a less than competent victim, rather than a terrorist villain who contributed to his own downfall. The organisation of the petition and the end of June street protests, the rapid locking up of Morsi and the controlling of the media look like a highly planned set of actions. Given the brutal aftermath and the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood “show trials”, it is difficult to disagree with Senator John McCain that a military coup has taken place. The West now needs to be very cautious about appearing to endorse a military coup.
Whatever Morsi’s faults, he was democratically elected and should be removed from office by the ballot box not bullets. Egypt is overwhelmingly an Islamic country and can only be governed successfully by involving all of the interests in selecting its government. It has had 60 years of military rule with very mixed results and the West would be wise not to support a further 60.
Lord Norman Warner is a backbench Labour Peer in the Lords
Published 9th September 2013