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The Decline and Fall of Egyptian Democracy

27/01/2014 12:09 GMT | Updated 27/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The streets of Egypt used to contain such hope. The people, flexing the long dormant muscles of civil action in a subjugated nation, successfully overthrew the tyrant Hosni Mubarak. They then heroically held an election. It was flawed, no doubt, and the wrong candidate won, but there appeared to be genuine excitement among a populace who had grown weary under the heel of autocracy.

It could not last. Mohammed Morsi was not only the Islamist he confessed himself to be - it turned out that he harboured designs on greater political control, going as far as to draft a new constitution: one that would give him sweeping powers. It was supposedly "passed" by the Egyptians themselves, but the army had other ideas, and the new President, the first democratically elected Egyptian leader in living memory, was deposed.

The fall of Morsi was a blow to those who wanted a stable and free Egypt, that's for certain, but there was a certain pleasure to be gained from watching the army - an institution viewed with distrust by a large number of the population for its support of Mubarak - stepping in to safeguard the future of democracy in the country.

Personally, I was ecstatic, stupidly so.

declared at this time that I thought the army 'did good' and that, in a comparable situation, I would expect the Chief of the Defence Staff to overthrow David Cameron if he got a bit grabby for power. That was wrong, obviously wrong, and the inevitable has happened: an undemocratic institution, once given power, is a bit hesitant in giving it back.

Now even the referendum, a mechanism of democracy and for representation, has turned into the 'tool of dictators and demagogues' in the prescient words of Clement Attlee. This vote has been conscripted by the junta to fight for the army. The percentage of those voting who are supposed to have signalled assent to the measures is rather large: standing as it does at 98.1 percent.

This figure, which seems fabricated in the glow of hindsight, as well as excessively high, is a step back into the past for fans of dictatorial statistics. Saddam Hussein managed 100 percent in his bid for re-election in 2000, if you can remember that far back, but this most recent electoral fraud makes the continued re-election of Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez look legitimate.

General al-Sisi, leader of the coup and head of government in the aftermath, has presided over a rapid decline in freedoms for ordinary Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's party, has been banned - in a sinister bid to curtail potential opposition to the regime. The Brotherhood, using that favourite tool of incompetent 'dissidents', boycotted the referendum, and managed to appear disdainful of the faux-democratic process. Even the pretence of caring might, perhaps, have served the party better in the long run.

On a wider scale, tensions between the sides remain high. The trials of the former national leaders, Mubarak and Morsi, evoked great sentiment from supporters and opponents. There were riots, and much violence and bloodshed. The referendum itself was held amid dangerous conditions, with clashes between Morsi supporters and the military guarding the polling stations.

The whole country is coming apart at the seams, with widespread polarisation translating into physical confrontation and threat. Street battles between supporters of rival factions have been a steady feature of political life in Egypt for a while now, but with the army assuming even more control over the ability to appoint ministers and to dictate government policy, things are not likely to calm down any time soon.

The spirit of Tahrir Square has never seemed so far away. The first protests against Mubarak proved to be a mythical time in the genesis of the national rebellion, when Christians stood watch while Muslims prayed and all appeared to be well amid the crackdown. But let us not forget that the same Square was tarnished only days afterwards, with appalling actions of mass sexual assault on the revolution's women - destroying the henceforth spotless reputation of the seemingly peaceful protestors. It is certain that this latest democratic illusion is a lie, and it should be treated with as much suspicion as the sadly empty promise of violence-free demonstrations.

Egypt did not achieve the results for which its citizens took to the streets in 2011. With this latest outrage against the principles of freedom and democracy, the usual cry strikes up over here: "it is none of our business what the Egyptians do in their own country", "we should not be involved".

While there is no need for anything as drastic as military action to halt the horror, there remain some things which our governments in the West can do. They can attempt to establish ceasefires, negotiations, even simple matters of aid. Yet there remain, in this nation and others, a popular desire to disengage from the world at large. The proponents of this deeply immoral ideology appear to be winning, and that is a rather sad note on which to end.

James Snell is a Columnist for Trending Central where this article first appeared.