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Egypt's present must make peace with its past if the nation is to truly reap the benefits of the Arab Spring.
In a speech last week, Mohammed Morsi - Egypt's first popularly elected President, following last year's Arab Spring uprising - praised the Egyptian army for its stewardship of the state in the run-up to his election in June. He also vowed to cooperate with the generals to forge a new Egypt that was representative of the will of the Egyptian people. In further evidence of understanding between the two sides, this week Morsi ordered the first air strikes in the Sinai Peninsula in 40 years - provoked into action by the killing of 16 soldiers by Islamist gunmen. Given the geopolitical ramifications, that the military action had the approval of Israel - a pre-requisite under the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and the Jewish state - this action is even more significant.
Notwithstanding such apparent synergy between Morsi and the Egyptian army, Egypt continues to be in constitutional limbo. Days before Morsi's election, the military's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), aided by the country's constitutional courts, stripped the incoming President of significant powers and dissolved the new Islamist dominated Parliament. SCAF not only assumed legislative authority but also arrogated to itself the power to 'guide' the process of drafting a new Constitution.
As the most culturally and politically significant country in the Arab world, it is imperative that Egypt makes a successful transition to becoming a full-fledged representative democracy. However, the fissures within Egyptian society and, by extension, in the Egyptian polity need to be addressed first. A history of military-backed regimes has not only created deep distrust for state institutions but also shaped very strong opinions about the ideal Egyptian republic. While most agree that Hosni Mubarak's threedecade rule was corrupt and brutal, there's little agreement on the way forward.
Egyptian society today is split right down the middle. The post-Mubarak era is witnessing a hardening of positions. This is exemplified by the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood's portrayal of anyone opposed to their political rise as a stooge of the previous regime. Thanks to their superior organisational strength, the Brotherhood not only managed to win a majority in the now dissolved Parliament but also got their own man elected to the highest public office. But their efforts to deny political space to the non-Islamist, liberal constituency in Egypt - which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in the early days of the Arab Spring - are problematic. The Brotherhood might yet be ambivalent about imposing sharia, but their Salafi ideological allies have no such reservations.
If this scenario persists, Egypt could be heading the Bangladesh way - a deeply divided society spiralling forever into an abyss of revenge politics, each side vying for the favour of the powerful army to impose its authority and persecute members of the opposing camp. Such instability would not only be dangerous for Egypt but also for the region as a whole.
The solution lies in mitigating the sense of distrust that plagues Egyptian society. In order to move forward, Egypt's present must make peace with Egypt's past. Crucial to this is the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the excesses of the previous regime and bring closure to families of the victims. In the Mubarak era, tens of thousands of activists - both liberal and Islamist - were brutally tortured by the state to suppress any forms of dissent. This fed into the 'us-versus-them' mentality that is at the heart of the problem. While the conservatives saw the liberals as part of the vicious state machinery, the liberals saw the conservatives as determined to usurp state power to impose their orthodox way of life.
There are several truth and reconciliation models that Egypt can choose from. But the obvious choice appears to be the one that was implemented by another North African nation, Morocco. Its Equity and Reconciliation Commission was created by its present monarch Mohammed VI to provide a sense of closure to victims of human rights abuses committed by members of that country's ruling elite during a previous repressive regime. Besides, it is also appropriate that Morocco's Mohammed VI was the only regional leader during the Arab Spring who had the foresight to implement constitutional reforms for his country and forestall a bloody uprising.
Egypt's Morsi is presented with a similar opportunity today. He must expend all his resources towards initiating a process of reconciliation. His focus should be to take along all sections of Egyptian society, from women and Coptic minorities to liberals and Islamists. This is the time to lay the foundation of a strong and secular Egypt that isn't burdened by the baggage of the past. Besides, with uncertainty and civil strife affecting the region - as exemplified by Libya and Syria - it falls on Egypt to consolidate the legacy of the Arab Spring and pave the way for a modern Arab democracy.
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