Egypt is caught between political maelstrom and economic collapse.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces does not intend to give up power to a democratically elected government and parliament. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s latest apologies and commitment to the democratic process are most likely attempts to buy stability without conceding the attempt to recreate the tough Turkish model of the 1970s, allowing the generals to be political overlords.
This is a delicate game.
The election for the lower house will almost certainly go ahead Monday. Some would like to see the vote postponed to let the opposition better organize, but such a delay could reinforce the perception, held by many, of a grasping military regime. SCAF does not need that right now, even if postponement would allow more time to splinter the opposition. The presidential election has been moved up to June, but voting for the upper house will not take place until 2013. Representation will be skewed through gerrymandering, even if that helps the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite breakaway groups, the somewhat tattered Brotherhood can still look forward to being the single largest party. The Brothers are likely to continue their cautious path, because they do not want to jeopardize any power-sharing arrangement they might make with SCAF, enabling them to tighten Islamic practice. One can imagine a short- to medium-term alliance, the limits of power tacitly defined, if never openly acknowledged. Behind-the-scenes discussions envisage a weak presidency that would allow the generals to deal directly with a floating Islamist majority.
The renewed street demonstrations are impressive, but have not reached the size that led to Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. Egyptians seem to want stability, giving the military an immediate leg up. Yet the generals face not only political challenge but an impending economic crisis, something observers have largely ignored.
In the next 15 months, one million Egyptians are expected to enter the work force, with only about 300,000 jobs created. The cash situation is dire. Pledges of support from traditional donors have not been fulfilled and are likely to remain so, considering the international economic crisis. There is also doubt that Western publics would accept such sacrifice, given the fear, irrational or not, of Egypt’s Islamists taking power.
It’s not even clear that overt Western input would be welcomed in Egypt. A proposed International Monetary Fund loan was rejected, its terms judged too harsh. Experts doubt the oil states will contribute on a meaningful scale. Many economists propose long-term solutions based on enhanced market access and a reformed regulatory framework, but no matter how critical such reforms may be, they will do little to affect what goes into people’s mouths tomorrow.
Unfulfilled expectations, political and economic, are the order of the day, with few sustainable solutions in sight and Western support vacuous at best – although it remains difficult to see the Americans completely writing off Egypt or its military, given that it remains the linchpin of strategic politics in the Middle East.
Most Canadians have watched and cheered as those in Tahrir Square have faced off against autocracy. But Egyptians need more than rhetoric from their supporters. Among potential reformers, Canada heads the list of those who talk but decline to act.
Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.