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Arab Spring

Pharaoh's curse

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Let not anyone say that democracy is for the faint-hearted. Just when you thought Egypt was finally going to get a life after the presidential elections, the military clamped down and flashed its biceps. The image of a critically ill Hosni Mubarak added to the sense of pervading gloom. The sight of a full Tahrir Square, pulsating and writhing with the justifiable grievances of Egypt's youth, is losing its power to shock and awe. Is the Arab Spring metamorphosing into something the revolutionaries had not bargained for?

Just as the Egyptian presidential elections were drawing to their inevitable conclusion, the all-powerful military announced the dissolution of the legislature, that the new president would not actually have much power and that they would have the last word in the constitution that would be written. Shades of the Mubarak regime Egyptians wanted to overthrow, perhaps?

The old enemies are now back to confronting each other. The military and the 'deep state' versus the Muslim Brotherhood. Did Mohammed Morsi win the elections? Or Ahmed Shafiq? Nobody is conceding. The Egyptian military, like its Pakistani counterpart, is not only the preeminent 'pol-mil' force in the country, it also controls some 30 per cent of the economy. It is fully supported by the US, which allowed it to take control, in early 2011, when Washington abandoned Mubarak to the mobs. In fact, it was the military that brokered last week's ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, proving their 'utility' in America's regional calculations.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as an inevitable consequence of the Jasmine revolution was a fear shared by many in the region and outside. The extremist ideology of the Brotherhood had been subdued for years, and, to Western commentators looking for alternatives during the revolution, these Islamists in suits appeared a benign force, almost a Tory party, if you like. But the past 18 months of transition of power have been messy in Egypt and, somewhere along the way, the Brotherhood became more overt in their ambitions. The Salafis won big in Egypt's parliamentary elections, and were soon pushing their agenda, proposing new Islamic laws that troubled the ordinary Egyptian but set up the backs of the avowedly secular military. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, where the first revolution started with the ouster of Ben Ali, the Islamists were seen to be behind the continuing violence and militancy.

With domestic politics tottering, the Egyptian military has swept up power. Some kind of an understanding needs to occur between these two opposing forces of power. Otherwise, the Algerian spectre looms - after an Islamic uprising in 1992, Algeria saw almost two decades of violence between the military and the Islamists. Or, as in Turkey, the Islamist AKP, when it came to power, mauled the generals. In Yemen, the continuing battle with al-Qaida is a constant reminder of where not to go. During the so-called revolution in Libya, there were well-founded fears of Islamists, even al-Qaida, being mixed up with the revolutionaries. In the post-Gaddafi civil war atmosphere that prevails, reports of Nigeria's al-Qaida affiliate, Boko Haram, sourcing arms from the leftovers of the Libyan war is cause for pause. Biting austerity measures are fuelling anti-Bashir protests in Sudan since last week, setting off continuous agitations in this conservative Islamic nation already going through a separation conflict in the south.
In fact, as Egyptian leaders look around, they might draw some lessons from Pakistan - where the 'deep state' itself created Islamist terror groups which have now turned on them. It's my belief that the Egyptian military will do its damnedest to stay in control. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has promised to give up power by July. It will be watched very carefully, because important conclusions will be drawn. The US, Egypt's principal backer, gave in to popular sentiment and abandoned Mubarak. I presume the military will draw significant lessons from that too.

If Egypt is the soul of the Arab street, the Saudi royal family is the soul of Arab orthodoxy. Over in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has just outlived two of his heirs. There is relative peace in the kingdom, even as the all-important Allegiance Council has chosen the next heir. The Saudi system is predicated on continuity, not change. The Gulf Arabs appear to have staved off change for the time being too.

The Arab revolutions are looking for ideas for change. But the danger of the Arab Spring dissolving into long-standing sectarian conflicts, military-civilian conflicts, or 'monarchy-popular ' tugs-of-war is very real. Change could come with popular participation in government, more inclusive practices from religious institutions and better economics. Or there could be bloody, sweeping revolutions.

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