Dispatches From Africa

Tahrir Square and the Erosion of Egypt’s Democracy

Tahrir Square

Emma Hooper writes from Cairo:

A small but ever-present brigade of armoured cars remains parked on Tahrir square, providing not just a forbidding deterrent to would be protesters, but a reminder of the square’s recent past. In January 2011, an estimated 250,000 Egyptians gathered in this vast space – symbolic of the protester’s wish to fill Egypt’s political vacuum. Nearly five years on, the square lies virtually empty except for a smattering of army officers and a diminishing number of tourists who have made their way out of the National Museum. I can’t help but feel that I am looking at a microcosm of what Egypt has become.  The military still dominates state institutions, which proves a significant failure in the goals of the “Arab Spring” and in Cairo it is hard to ignore the overwhelming sense of disillusionment. With revolutionary fervour all but evaporated, even small-scale peaceful protests have been met with lethal force. Whilst after four years of turmoil, Egyptians no doubt welcome a bit of calm, it is not the promise of peace but rather the futility of revolution that keeps the possibility of further uprisings at bay. The growing sense of indifference and disenfranchisement was evidenced in the most recent parliamentary elections where turnout was estimated to be at just 28 percent. This is unsurprising considering that since 2011, two presidential elections, three constitutional referendums and two parliamentary elections have thus far resulted in no meaningful change. Furthermore, when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected in 2014, he was announced to have won 96.91 percent of the votes – a laughingly high figure, which questioned some fundamental tenets of Egypt’s democracy and electoral processes. The recent elections were also not devoid of contention. Hailed by Sisi as the climax of the military’s roadmap to democracy, the results have been undermined by a heavy security crackdown on Islamist and other political opposition elements in Egypt. When on 4th December an electoral alliance loyal to Sisi was announced to have dominated parliamentary elections – nobody seemed very surprised.

With the space for free speech narrowing and dozens of journalists and activists having been jailed and tortured, I have spoken to some in Cairo who view Sisi as possessing the potential to be far worse than Mubarak. The 2010 killing of a young man in Alexandria by plain-clothed investigators, which sparked the 2011 revolution, cannot be far from the minds of many in government. Yet although the risks have not entirely diminished, the greatest threat now comes not from the disillusioned revolutionaries who challenged the government in 2011, but from religious extremists. With the divide between Islamist and secular groups widening, Sisi’s treatment of Islamists (particularly the sentencing to death and treatment of many Muslim brotherhood members) has potential to further radicalise huge swathes of the population. Indeed, no longer confined to North Sinai, in the past year sporadic militant attacks have occurred more than ever before. As a result, stringent security checks are now in place throughout Cairo, particularly in spots frequented by expats. Although these attempts may help to create the perception that security is strong and Egypt is still open to tourism, convincing people to travel to Egypt in the first place will prove the most difficult. With the future of the Sinai peninsula – home to Sharm el Sheikh – becoming increasingly uncertain in the aftermath of the suspected bombing of a Russian airliner in November and the continued threat of attacks from Wilayat Sinai – the self-styled Islamic State’s ally in the region -, tourism’s contribution to GDP could continue to deplete rapidly. With foreign reserves already dangerously low, this will be an obstacle to Egypt’s ability to achieve economic and political stability.

For now, Tahrir square remains undisturbed. The desire for normality has led to much of the populace accepting the current military regime and in the absence of any solid opposition party, democratic transition and change seems unlikely. As the unsightly Hilton hotel towers over the West side of the Square, the international hotel chain’s presence is symbolic of the international community’s continued monitoring of the country. With the potential to continue to provide a relative beacon of stability in an otherwise tumultuous region, Egypt will remain an important ally and strategic partner to the international community in the fight against terrorism. And it is this fight that will take precedence over any attempt by external powers to rebuke Sisi’s regime for undemocratic practices and human rights abuses.

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