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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: Make aid to Egypt conditional on credible observers for this month’s elections

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The all too brief appearance made by a Mr Pamuk in Downton Abbey, I’m sorry to say, did not give rise to the term “Turkish model.” It is, rather like the “Turkish vice,” a figment of the Western mind.  If in Victorian times it was thought that the Ottoman court had an unusually permissive attitude to homosexuality, in modern Turkey there are supposed to exist impeccably democratic and moderate Islamists, who marry strict religious dogma with fidelity to parliamentary institutions and the rule of law.

In the early stages of Egypt’s revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood let it be known that it understood the need for moderation. That while it had been allowed more space by the Mubarak regime than competing political forces, it realised it did not really represent as broad a swathe of Egyptian society as its electoral strength would suggest.  It wouldn’t contest more than a quarter of the seats. But then a quarter became a third, a third a “majority,” and eventually the majority expanded to include every seat for which it could muster a candidate.

And since then Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s backup president (the movement’s first choice having been excluded on a technicality) has seized every opportunity to increase his, and his movement’s, power. There was the terrorist attack in the Sinai, after which he dismissed top generals. The constitutional convention, originally planned to be broadly representative of Egypt, rammed through Islamist doctrine, its work accelerated by a (metaphorical) guillotine. We shouldn’t forget, as well, that Morsi only won very narrowly against Ahmed Shafik, an unpopular apparatchik of the old regime, in a run-off generated from a field winnowed by a farcical catalogue of abstruse disqualifications.

He who controls the process has the power

Morsi understands very well that political power goes to the man that controls the processes of its exercise, but he appears to have forgotten that however disciplined and hierarchical the Muslim Brotherhood itself may be, Egypt is considerably more difficult to control. Each of his previous power grabs worked because the opposition was divided or demoralised. Thinking his international cover secure, having taken credit for Hamas’s ceasefire last December, he executed what in Latin America is called an autogolpe, or self-coup, by means of a decree eliminating all constitutional checks on his power.  After intense protests this time he backed down.

It looks like Morsi is in a race to capture Egypt’s institutions before the Egyptians, and the world, realise quite what he’s up to. Whether he has done enough may depend on two other races he’s running. The more he uses every ounce of the Brotherhood’s power to eliminate anybody else’s influence on institutions, the less Egyptians trust them, as they come to see they have been captured, not reformed. Instead they take to the streets, in violent protest. The brotherhood’s own militias, politicised football hooligans (21 were recently condemned to death for taking part in a riot) and a mysterious new “black bloc” of anarchist street fighters brawl.  Meanwhile Egypt’s economy founders: economic activity is disrupted, foreign investment dries up, and people have  ever more difficulty making ends meet.

Egypt’s disorganised opposition can share some of the blame. The National Salvation Front is slow, reactive and naive. It is even said to be thinking of breaking one that cardinal rule of opposition in quasi-democratic countries. “Never boycott elections” should be inscribed in tablets of stone. It is the equivalent the military warning “Never invade Russia.”

Now despite Morsi’s comments, recently unearthed, calling Jews “bloodsuckers” and the “descendants of pigs and monkeys” his style is not the fervid charismatic fanaticism of a Khomeini, a Hitler or a Mao. A consolidated Brotherhood regime would remind us far more of the bureaucratic centralism of a Soviet Party-state (what emerges should Morsi’s grip slip and the Army attempt to reimpose military rule is another matter entirely).

But unlike the Soviet Union, Egypt needs the outside world. It needs investment and continued aid from the US and European Union. Morsi himself still craves international status. Egypt’s institutions, weak though they are, still retain some structure and independence. The next crunch point will be the parliamentary elections in three weeks. Aid, and respectability, should come with conditions, and in particular a credible international observer mission to prevent electoral fraud. It’s too late for the opposition to win, but not too late to create conditions where they can fight another day.


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