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February 13, 2011

Page: 6/38

Home > 2011 Issues > February 13, 2011

News in Focus

Turmoil in the Arab World
Which side will the camel choose to sit?

By Priyadarshi Dutta

The regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia had long been the targets of jihadis for being American allies. Egyptians are fed up with corruption that is handmaiden of status quo. But which way the camel will seat is a billion Egyptian pound question! Will it go towards Secularism or Islamism? Egypt has neither been hidebound in theology nor radically secular.

THE Pyramids of Giza are sinking into the desert. There’s spate in the Nile, out of season. The Sphinx is expected to speak out. It had spoken only once before, to Kahlil Gibran when it said, "A grain of sand is a desert, and a desert is a grain of sand; and now let us all be silent again." (Sand and Foam).

These are some of my surreal jottings on the current crisis of Egypt. On the day of ‘a million man march’ at Cairo’s Tahrir Square I could not think of anything more coherent. President Hosni Mubarak, 83, will possibly have to leave Egypt with the same haste and disgrace as King Farouk for Malta in 1953 in a steamboat. King Farouk, great great-grandson of famous Mohammed Ali, was the last of the dynasty that tried to modernise Egypt but in the process became out of sync with Egyptian populace. His fall was hastened by the bloodless coup on July 22, 1953 led by Lieutenant- Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The secret ‘Free Officers’ clique with the army that Nasser led wanted to set up a parliamentary democracy. Communists and Muslim Brotherhood both had eyes on power if democracy were enacted. But both were excluded and Nasser ultimately heralded a one-party civilian rule.

Today Mubarak is the last of the most recognisable symbol of Nasserite legacy. Just ten years younger to Nasser, this former fighter pilot, is a civilian President with military background. Egypt has a quasi-Presidential system of government. It is longer one party rule and now 18 political parties jostle in the fray. Yet President’s party Al’Hizb Al Watani Al Democrati (National Democratic Party) commands 420 seats out of 518 in the People’s Assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood commands merely one. The assembly elections were held as recently as November 28 and December 5, 2010.

The last Presidential Elections were held in 2005. Earlier the President was chosen through a six yearly referendum (Yes or No) where the reigning President was the only candidate (unless he retired or died). This was how President Mubarak was returned to power in 1987, 1993, 1999. After a constitutional amendment of 2005 and 2007, multiple but limited numbers of Presidential candidates are allowed. But the wonder of wonders is that when it was implemented in 2005 Hosni Mubarak still returned with 88.6 per cent votes. His rivals Ayman Nour (Hiz al-Ghad or Tomorrow Party) secured 7 per cent whereas Numan Gomaa (Hizb al-Wafd al-Jadid or New Wafd Party) secured 2.8 per cent votes. While it might seem a huge groundswell in favour in Mubarak, even after nearly 25 years of rule, the real picture was grainy. Less than 23 per cent of electorates cast their votes, betraying perhaps a deep cynicism with the political system. His ratings were perhaps buoyed by lack of credible alternatives. This cynicism is now finding explosive expression on streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

This lack of credible alternative leadership is what’s dogging the current agitation in Egypt. Democratic institutions do not exist. Mubarak shrewdly has kept the sanctioned position of Vice President vacant during his entire tenure to avoid the growth of an alternate power centre. He has taken a new Prime Minister in every tenure-Atef Sedki, Kamal Ganzouri, Atef Ebeid. As recent as January 29, as protests engulfed Cairo, he removed Ahmed Nazif (appointed 2004) to bring in Ahmed Shafik. Today, it is said Mohammed Elbaradei is fast emerging as the possible new President. The Noble Peace Prize Winner is a veteran bureaucrat without any military background.

Countdown to the end of Mubarak era is not without its trepidations. It is mummification of a Pharaoh when a new one has not been found. It is demise of a predictable era, and the future can only be speculated. Mubarak had followed ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards the Islamic terrorism. He has survived several assasination bids. His predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1981. Gamal Abdel Nasser had survived assassination attempt at Alexandria in October 1954, following which he outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Anwar Sadat lifted the ban after coming to power in 1969, and fawned upon extremist elements. Ironically he became their victim after concluding peace with the Jewish state of Israel (Camp David Accord, March 26, 1979). The entire Arab world turned against Egypt; Islamist overtly threatened on an Islamic Revoltuion. Mubarak restituted the dignity of Egypt in Arab League. He kept Islamists under strict control, but allowed a bening anti-Israelism to flourish. Though Egypt was the first Arab country to recognise Israel in 1979, the official maps in Egypt do now show Israel (they indicate the entire region as Palestine).

The regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia had long been the targets of jihadis for being American allies. Egyptians are fed up with corruption that is handmaiden of status quo. But which way the camel will seat is a billion Egyptian pound question! Will it go towards Secularism or Islamism? Egypt has neither been hidebound in theology nor radically secular.

The land of Nile has a great symbolic value. It is a country with a recorded history of five thousand years-Pharaonic, Hellenic, Roman, Arab, Turk, French, British etc. Egypt is an Arab speaking pre-dominantly Muslim country (Coptic Christians constitute 10 per cent). The regime fosters Egypt’s pre-Islamic heritage, key to Egypt’s attraction as tourism destination. In 2009, tourism brought $ 10.8 billion to coffers of Egypt. President Mubarak’s UN-backed initiatve led to foundation of futuristic version of legendary Library of Alexandria.

But Islamists want Egyptians to dissociate themselves from this pre-Islamic heritage. If this section leaps to power, as in Iran in 1979, it would be a great loss to human heritage. Remember, in Iran also, Muslim fundamentalist elements were not there in picture during first early months of protest against Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in France. The Communists were prominent in their opposition to the Shah, an ally of America. But later they all got eliminated by Khomeini’s folks, and often hanged in public. Shadegh Khalkhali, head of the newly established Sharia courts, called for destruction of ancient remains of Persepolis in Shiraz saying they were anti-Islamic.

French Revolution did not occur in Italy, despite favourable conditions there. Hope Iranian Revolution does repeat itself in Egypt, the land of Pharaohs, after a lag of 30 years. It would be bull run in a China shop, as Egypt is an alfresco museum. But remember it is also the country of Syed Qutub as well as Ayman el-Zawahiri, second in command of Al Qaeda.

(The writer was formerly with the Press Bureau, Embassy of Egypt, New Delhi)

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