Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Across Egypt hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets for the day, marking exactly one year since the outbreak of protests leading to 83-year-old longstanding ruler Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. The country’s decades-long emergency rule was partially lifted this week; meanwhile, a possible economic meltdown looms and a newly-elected parliament held their first meeting on Monday.
Despite the new parliament, military rule introduced following Mubarak’s fall last spring remains. Echoing the demands from a year ago, some protesters are demanding the military relinquish power; there are doubts an elected civilian leader will be permitted to replace the army.
The brief unity against Mubarak has since fragmented, with Secularists and Islamists marking the revolution’s anniversary splitting to opposing sides of Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square and chanting at each other. Initial demonstrations last year were mainly from young secularists; now, Islamic parties hold most of the new parliament’s seats — the country’s first democratic one in six decades.
Salafis hold 25% of the seats and 47% are held by the Muslim Brotherhood, which brought supporters to Cairo for the anniversary. Tahrir Square alone contained tens of thousands of people, some witnesses putting the crowd at 150,000 strong. It’s the largest number on the streets since the revolution.
Military rulers planned celebrations including pyrotechnics, commemorative coins, and air displays. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces took power after last year’s February 11 resignation of Mubarak.
Alaa al-Aswani, a pro-democracy activist writing in al-Masry al-Youm, said: “We must take to the streets on Wednesday, not to celebrate a revolution which has not achieved its goals, but to demonstrate peacefully our determination to achieve the objectives of the revolution,” — to “live in dignity, bring about justice, try the killers of the martyrs and achieve a minimum social justice”
Alexandria in the north and the eastern port city of Suez also saw large gatherings. It was bitter fighting in Suez led to the first of the revolution’s 850 casualties in ousting Mubarak. “We didn’t come out to celebrate. We came out to protest against the military council and to tell it to leave power immediately and hand over power to civilians,” said protestor Mohamed Ismail.
“Martyrs, sleep and rest. We will complete the struggle,” chanted crowds in Alexandria, a reference to the 850 ‘martyrs of the revolution’. No convictions are in yet although Mubarak is on trial. Photos of the dead were displayed in Tahrir Square. Young Tahrir chanters went with “Down with military rule” and “Revolution until victory, revolution in all of Egypt’s streets”.
If the protestors demanding the military leave power get their way, the Islamists celebrating election victory face a variety of challenges. For now, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi — whose career featured twenty years as defence minister under Mubarak — rules the nation and promises to cede power following presidential elections this year.
The economy is troubled and unemployment is up since Mubarak left. With tourism and foreign investment greatly lower than usual, budget and payment deficits are up — with the Central Bank eating into its reserves in a bid to keep the Egyptian pound from losing too much value.
Last week the nation sought US$3.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF insists upon funding also being secured from other donors, and strong support from Egypt’s leaders. IMF estimates say the money could be handed over in a few months — whereas Egypt wanted it in a matter of weeks.
The country has managed to bolster trade with the United States and Jordan. Amr Abul Ata, Egyptian ambassador to the fellow Middle-East state, told The Jordan Times in an interview for the anniversary that trade between the nations increased in 2011, and he expects another increase this year. This despite insurgent attacks reducing Egyptian gas production — alongside electricity the main export to Jordan. Jordan exports foodstuffs to Egypt and has just signed a deal increasing the prices it pays for gas. 2011 trade between the countries was worth US$1 billion.
The anniversary also saw a new trade deal with the US, signed by foreign trade and industry minister Mahmoud Eisa and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. President Barack Obama promises work to improve U.S. investment in, and trade with, nations changing political systems after the Arab Spring. Details remain to be agreed, but various proposals include US assistance for Egyptian small and medium enterprises. Both nations intend subjecting plans to ministerial scrutiny.
The U.S. hailed “several historic milestones in its transition to democracy” within a matter of days of Egypt’s revolution. This despite U.S.-Egypt ties being close during Mubarak’s rule.
US$1 billion in grants has been received already from Qatar and Saudi Arabia but army rulers refused to take loans from Gulf nations despite offers-in-principle coming from nations including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Foreign aid has trickled in; no money at all has been sent from G8 nations, despite the G8 Deauville Partnership earmarking US$20 billion for Arab Spring nations.
A total of US$7 billion was promised from the Gulf. The United Kingdom pledged to split £110 million between Egypt and Arab Spring initiator Tunisia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says G8 money should start arriving in June, when the presidential election is scheduled.
The African Development Bank approved US$1.5 billion in loans whilst Mubarak still held power but, despite discussions since last March, no further funding has been agreed. The IMF offered a cheap loan six months ago, but was turned away. Foreign investment last year fell from US$6 billion to $375 million.
Rights, justice and public order remain contentious issues. Tantawi lifted the state of emergency on Tuesday, a day before the revolution’s anniversary, but left it in place to deal with the exception of ‘thuggery’. “This is not a real cancellation of the state of emergency,” said Islamist Wasat Party MP Essam Sultan. “The proper law designates the ending of the state of emergency completely or enforcing it completely, nothing in between.”
The same day, Amnesty International released a report on its efforts to establish basic human rights and end the death penalty in the country. Despite sending a ten-point manifesto to all 54 political parties, only the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (of the Egyptian Bloc liberals) and the left-wing Popular Socialist Alliance Party signed up. Measures included religious freedom, help to the impoverished, and rights for women. Elections did see a handful of women win seats in the new parliament.
The largest parliamentary group is the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, who Amnesty say did not respond. Oral assurances on all but female rights and abolition of the death penalty were given by Al-Nour, the Salafist runners-up in the elections, but no written declaration or signature.
“We challenge the new parliament to use the opportunity of drafting the new constitution to guarantee all of these rights for all people in Egypt. The cornerstone must be non-discrimination and gender equality,” said Amnesty, noting that the first seven points were less contentious amongst the twelve responding parties. There was general agreement for free speech, free assembly, fair trials, investigating Mubarak’s 30-year rule for atrocities, and lifting the state of emergency. A more mixed response was given to ensuring no discrimination against LGBT individuals, whilst two parties claimed reports of Coptic Christian persecution are exaggerated.
Mubarak himself is a prominent contender for the death penalty, currently on trial for the killings of protesters. The five-man prosecution team are also seeking death for six senior police officers and the chief of security in the same case. Corruption offences are also being tried, with Gamal Mubarak and Alaa Mubarak accused alongside their father Hosni.
The prosecution case has been hampered by changes in witness testimony and there are complaints of Interior Ministry obstruction in producing evidence. Tantawi has testified in a closed hearing that Mubarak never ordered protesters shot.
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Hisham Talaat Moustafa, an ex-MP and real estate billionaire, is another death penalty candidate. He, alongside Ahmed Sukkari, was initially sentenced to death for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tamim. A new trial was granted on procedural grounds and he is now serving a fifteen-year term for paying Sukkari US$2 million to slit 30-year-old’s Tamim’s throat in Dubai. Her assassin was caught when police followed him back to his hotel and found a shirt stained with her blood; he was in custody within two hours of the murder.
The court of appeals is now set to hear another trial for both men after the convictions were once more ruled unsound.
A military crackdown took place last November, the morning after a major protest, and sparking off days of violence. Egypt was wary of a repeat this week, with police and military massed near Tahrir Square whilst volunteers manned checkpoints into the square itself.
The military has pardoned and released at least 2,000 prisoners jailed following military trials, prominently including a blogger imprisoned for defaming the army and deemed troublesome for supporting Israel. 26-year-old Maikel Nabil was given a three year sentence in April. He has been on hunger strike alleging abuse at the hands of his captors. He wants normalised relations with Israel. Thousands have now left Tora prison in Cairo.