Egypt and the outlook for reconciliation

Amy Stewart 24 April 2013

Popular hope, energy and enthusiasm sparked Egypt’s eighteen days of street revolution in the spring of 2011. Two court orders issued last week for the release of former President Hosni Mubarak, currently sitting in Tora Prison in Cairo, remain ignored. But this commitment to punish him is one of the few signs that the revolution continues. A political opposition divided and weary now accompanies the stagnation of the new regime, raising questions about the viability of a reconciliation of the revolution’s expectations with emerging realties.

All promise of socio-economic justice has been forgotten. Labour strikes are banned and vilified in state media as partisan demand that destroy the wheel of production. The West demands a peaceful democratic transition of President Morsi, elected in June 2012. But pressure from the West to avoid disruption ultimately undermines the cause of the very workers who began the revolution. There is no such thing as an undisruptive revolution. Without the platform to protest it is unlikely that the Egyptian people’s socio-economic expectations will be met.

On April 4 two Muslims and four Coptic Christians were murdered in a gun battle after Christian children painted swastikas on an Islamic school at Khosous in Qalyubiya. The next day a Muslim and Christian were killed outside St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo when the funeral procession for the victims of Khosous was attacked. Egyptian Pope Tawadros condemned Morsi for failing to protect Christians in the face of Islamists’ attack. Such sectarian strife is a far cry from the unity that caused the revolution to succeed.

Fortunately, religious reconciliation is not impossible. Egypt’s main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), has already bridged the religious divide by welcoming the membership of the Salafist Nour Party. Increasingly Islamists are joining in anti-government protests. Many in the 2000-strong protest outside Cairo’s High Court on 19 April were inspired to take part by the sermon of preacher Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen at Omar Makram Mosque. This is surely a positive development. If the government and the opposition can engage in constructive dialogue, spillover from the opposition’s religious diversity can promote wider religious reconciliation.

Troubled religious reconciliation at home affects the entire region. Egypt’s new Islamist government is closer to Iran than it has been for over thirty years. Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo in February was the first since 1979. New ties were solidified in his call for a “strategic alliance” with Egypt and offer of a loan. Many Muslim Brothers are sensitive to Iranian nuclear ambitions to counter an Israeli weapon. But closeness to Iran perturbs Israel, with which relations are often tense. On April 17 two rockets were fired by militants from Egypt’s Sinai region at the Israeli resort of Eilat. Days later the state arrested a spy ring allegedly working for Israel. Egypt’s future, therefore, has grave implications for the all-important Arab-Israeli reconciliation on which events in the region pivot.

Amy Stewart