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Middle East Amp North Africa
Egypt’s biggest problem is restoration of the security state
From the Financial Times of Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:01:53 GMT

President Sisi of Egypt

Four years after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself alight and ignited a chain of rebellion against ossified autocracies across north Africa and the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring has run into the sands everywhere except in Tunisia. In Egypt, where the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011 became the cockpit of upheaval and captured the imagination of the world, counter-revolution looks like a restoration of the ancien regime.

That was dramatised at the weekend when an Egyptian court dropped murder charges against Hosni Mubarak, overthrown after 30 years as president in 2011, and dismissed corruption charges against him, his two sons and one of their business associates. Most of Mr Mubarak’s security chiefs were acquitted of the deaths of some 900 people in the rebellion. It would seem Egypt’s “deep state”, and the crony capitalism that marked the second half of his rule, are back in business, in all their impunity.

The case against the former dictator and his henchmen, thrown together under army dictation in an attempt to appease the mass movement that overthrew him, was riddled with procedural flaws. Yet the real problem Egypt faces is the restoration of the security state, with the judiciary as one of its arms, but now in the firm grip of the army, which has ring-fenced its privileges, expanded its economic empire, and constitutionally codified its political hegemony.

A year and a half after the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently enshrined Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief, as president in elections this year, the manipulation of the rule of law is not the only hallmark of restoration. Some 1,400 protesters, mostly Islamists, were shot dead in the streets last year. Leaders of the liberal and leftist youth organisations that drove the Tahrir rebellion – many of whom took to the streets again last summer urging the generals to act against an Islamist government bent on capturing Egypt’s institutions – have joined the Brothers in the restored regime’s dungeons.

The coup all but ended critical debate, amid a witch-hunt whipped up to stifle independent voices and smother dissident media, as well as a personality cult around former Field Marshal Sisi that would make Gamal Abdel Nasser – the tarnished titan of modern Egypt to whom Mr Sisi’s courtiers compare the new president – blush.

Under an October decree by Mr Sisi, taking as its pretext the war against terrorists, the powers of military tribunals against dissidence have expanded more than at any time since the military first took power in Egypt in 1952. “This law represents another nail in the coffin of justice in Egypt,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Many more civilians who engage in protests can now expect to face trial before uniformed judges subject to the orders of their military superiors.”

On Sunday, Mr Sisi averred that Egypt “is on an aspirational path to the future and can never go back to the past”. But so far his rule is in some respects worse than the Mubarak era. Egypt does face a terrorist threat from the jihadis of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Operating from the ungoverned spaces of the Sinai peninsula, occasionally striking inside Cairo, they have now declared themselves the Sinai Province of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). Little wonder many Egyptians believe only their generals stand between them and the black banners of the jihadis.

But the Sisi regime’s decision to criminalise the mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood is grist to the jihadi mill. The Brothers imploded after one year in government devoted to a sectarian power-grab. Yet they won five votes in a row, and many of those who cast them will now buy the Isis argument that jihad is the only way forward. What has really been restored in Egypt are the traditional protagonists in the Arab drama: the men on horseback against the zealots in turbans.

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