A nation on cusp of change

By Glen Johnson

Protesters chant slogans against the military ruling council after judges ruled that Mubarak's former prime minister can stand in the presidential runoff. Photo / Manu Brabo
Protesters chant slogans against the military ruling council after judges ruled that Mubarak's former prime minister can stand in the presidential runoff. Photo / Manu Brabo

Egypt's presidential run-off election could be the final step to democracy for Egyptians, or it could spark a fresh wave of violence. New Zealand journalist Glen Johnson reports from Cairo as polls open.

From his office on the 15th floor of Cairo's World Trade Centre, New Zealander David Craig motions out across the Nile River to the distant Qasr al-Aini bridge, linking the leafy, up-market island suburb of Zamalek to downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"There was a large group of Mubarak's supporters coming across the bridge, all of them wearing police boots and pants," Craig says, recalling Day 9 of last year's uprising, when thousands of Baltegeya (thugs) poured into Cairo's alleyways and boulevards, attacking protesters. From that moment on, there were some very ugly scenes."

For the past 18 months, Craig, the World Bank's Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt regional director since 2009, has watched Egypt's revolution and subsequent transition unfold. With Egyptians at the ballot box again this weekend, voting in the Presidential run-off, he is witnessing the final act in the country's long, often confused, transition to civilian rule.

After a year and a half of social and political distress, weariness hangs heavy over Egypt. The enthusiasm of parliamentary elections - Egyptians' first tangible barometer of positive democratic change - is gone, replaced by cynicism as many see the presidential elections turn into a battle between the old regime and austere Islamists.

"I am not convinced by any one of them," says 30-year-old Michael Georges, a Coptic Christian. "I don't want a religious, Islamic country nor do I want to go back again to the old regime."

Repeated and bloody clashes between security forces and protesters, economic freefall and a rapidly evolving political scene have left the country exhausted. The giddy days of last year's uprising - when the nation rose and toppled a dictator - feel, to many, like they happened an age ago.

"Before the revolution kicked off, everyone realised the situation was very unstable. There was a false sense of stability after 30 years of dictatorship," Craig says. "Everyone knew it was going to break open at some point, just without knowing what sort of shape or form it was going to take."

Certainly, Egypt has had a hectic 18 months, kicked off by the insurrection which left 846 people dead.

Parliament was dissolved. A referendum on constitutional reform held. The emotional, often farcical trial of Hosni Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa, former interior minister Habib el-Adly and a number of high-ranking regime officials, staggered along, eventually reaching a verdict that satisfied no one.

For Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, the verdict undercut the accountability of Egypt's security forces in "every possible way" while failing to hold anyone to account for the killing of protesters last year.

"The narrative that came out in the verdict was that the police had nothing to do with it and that Mubarak and Adly only failed to prevent violence," says Morayef. "It reinforces impunity, that's what scares me so much about the verdict."

Political parties formed as the protest movement fractured into myriad voices and demands, and high numbers of Egyptians came out to vote in parliamentary elections, which saw the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, secure 47 per cent of the vote.

"The outcome of parliamentary elections is probably a fair representation of what most Egyptians want," says Craig.

Softly spoken, with a trimmed beard and a dry sense of humour, 61-year-old Craig, from Timaru, has worked for the World Bank since 1984.

Negotiating on-again off-again loans with Egypt's government as foreign reserves nose-dived while supporting investment loans targeting Egyptian female entrepreneurs hoping to start small businesses, Craig immediately noticed an emerging environment of open dialogue, one of his highpoints for the transitional phase.

"Soon after the revolution, we [World Bank] were trying to decide, 'well, what do we do?' So we decided to talk to everybody we could. In the first few months we spent a lot of time talking to young revolutionaries, because they were the only game in town - it was a lot of fun, with fresh thinking."

The more open space for discussion led to direct challenges for the World Bank. Its structural readjustment programmes embraced by Mubarak in the early 1990s led to solid growth, but it was hoarded by regime cronies and the elite. More Egyptians struggled to survive - contributing to the frustration which triggered last year's uprising.

Highlighting the disparity is Cairo's City of the Dead, an 8km stretch of tombs at the base of Moqattam Mountain. No one knows how many people, pushed by poverty, live among these tombs. Estimates range from 50,000 to 5 million.

A few short kilometers away is the suburb of Heliopolis, with its huge shopping malls, glitzy cafes and expansive villas.

"Our support in the future will have to be much better targeted towards inclusive growth," Craig concedes.

As the transition progressed, rifts between the ruling military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood seemingly grew and solidified, particularly in the last-minute free-for-all to gain control over the executive branch of governance.

The presidential run-off pits the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party's Mohammed Morsi against Ahmed Shafiq, a former air marshal and the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak.

After the twists of Egypt's political progression since the fall of Mubarak, few people are willing to say which way the elections will go.

"This is an extremely divisive runoff," says Human Right Watch's Morayef. "There are a lot of people who will not vote or who will be forced to vote for someone they may not normally support."

The Justice Ministry this week granted military forces and intelligence agencies the ability to make arrests of civilians until the constitution is drafted. On Thursday, the country's constitutional court ruled that a Political Isolation Law passed in April, aiming to block high-ranking regime officials from public office, was unconstitutional, clearing Shafiq to run in the election.

That finding was expected, but the other bombshell the court dropped was not. It threw the transition into chaos once more, as it ruled that the system for electing a third of the seats in the Islamist-dominated parliament was unconstitutional, dissolving a third of parliament.

According to an April report by the authoritative International Crisis Group, the presidential election is pivotal, coming amid an environment of political polarisation.

"Fearing that the military would impose a strong presidential system, void parliament of real influence and thus rob it of its historical opportunity to govern, the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its weight into this race, reneging on its repeated pledge not to do so," the reports says. "Remnants of the old regime sought to respond in kind."

For Craig, witnessing Egypt's transitional forces has been enthralling.

"It's not often that you get to live through one of these revolutionary periods," Craig says. "As we all know, the end of the story still hasn't been written yet."

- Herald on Sunday

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