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Hussein Ibish

Unreadable Egypt

The Mubarak acquittal illustrates how murky Egypt's political scene has become

Egypt

On Saturday, an Egyptian judge dismissed all remaining charges against former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, his two sons and a wealthy associate. Although he was sentenced to three years in prison on corruption charges last May, his erstwhile imprisonment all counts as time served, and Mubarak is, for the time being anyway, at least theoretically (he seems almost permanently stuck to a stretcher and has been in hospital for most of his confinement) a free man.

The Mubarak acquittal, and all of the murky questions that surround it, is a perfect barometer of how opaque contemporary Egypt has become.

The court's ruling is, without doubt, fundamentally an appalling betrayal of the uprising that unseated the 30-year dictator in early 2011. Mubarak sought to use the power of the state to crush the popular rebellion, until finally the Army refused to turn on the public and insisted the president had to go. In the process, well over 800 people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them precisely because Mubarak refused to succumb to popular pressure and go.

The charges against him were narrowly drawn and limited to the events of the rebellion itself. This is frequently interpreted as reflecting an unwillingness to interrogate his entire 30 years in power, and the police brutality and state security repression, with no accountability, that characterized it. These charges allowed Mubarak to be tried, along with a small group of others, but they also served to protect large numbers of other officials, and the system itself, from his decades of misrule from being put in the dock alongside the former president.

But it's precisely those limited, narrowly-drawn charges that are now directly in question. The court did not rule on the merits of the indictment. Instead, it acquitted Mubarak on a technicality involving the process by which the charges were brought against him (as admirably explained by Hossam Bahgat). The court, many observers who are well informed about Egyptian criminal law suggest, may actually have been on fairly solid procedural grounds.

 

But, as Bahgat notes, "The public prosecutor can, and most likely will, appeal today’s verdict before the Court of Cassation." And if that court overturns the acquittal, it will preside over a retrial, which would be final.

 

The vanishing crowd

 

Naturally the acquittal outraged many Egyptians, especially those who had been at the progressive cutting-edge of the original Tahrir Square protests that led to Mubarak's ouster three years ago. They took to the streets, with two protesters being killed by security forces, 15 injured, and about 80 arrested, of whom four are reportedly still in custody.

 

The government claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had "infiltrated" the protests, and were attempting to use them for their own purposes. The authorities claim that the protests were peaceful until the Brotherhood intervened at about 6 PM and instigated stone-throwing and rioting.

 

For many, the acquittal carries with it the worst specters of the bad old days: impunity and lack of accountability for officials, a judicial system rigged in favor of power, and the sense that the remnants of the old regime are becoming much bolder in reasserting their authority and rolling back the "revolution." It is as if, these voices say, the Arab Spring had never happened at all.

 

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights summed up such sentiments in their reaction, saying that the verdict "further reinforces concerns about the alarmingly selective justice system in Egypt, which appears more intent on settling political scores and punishing dissent than establishing justice." Amr Ali, of the April 6 movement, completed the thought by noting: "This verdict confirms that Mr Sisi is part of Mr Mubarak's regime." This view is not exclusive to many Egyptian activists, rights groups, progressives and dissidents; it's also the way these developments will be generally viewed in Washington and other key Western capitals.

 

But it's noteworthy that the demonstrations following Mubarak's acquittal were tiny compared to those calling for his ouster three years ago, and even smaller still than the overwhelming demonstrations in the summer of 2013 demanding an end to the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Estimates generally range in the 1,000-3,000-person tally, with most closer to the lower figure, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands and even millions who took to the streets against Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013.

 

It's very hard to read this reality. Are Egyptians exhausted and, after years of protesting, simply unable to muster yet another street-level rebellion? Are they apathetic and cynical, their once incandescent idealism having dwindled into a faint spark because they've seen their efforts time and again result in failure?

 

Or are Egyptians, instead, largely either supportive of, or neutral about, the new government and disinclined to disrupt it? Is President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi still enjoying that much of a honeymoon, with people yearning for stability and looking to the government to provide economic improvements and law and order? Is the general public in Egypt according the separation of powers a much greater credibility than the protesters, and therefore declining to blame the entire system or the presidency for the actions of one court? Or are they looking forward rather than backward, and so aren't particularly worked up about the fate of this decrepit, ailing, 86-year-old former dictator, and are focused instead on what lies ahead for the country?

 

For many observers outside Egypt, the questions laid out in the previous paragraph sound ridiculous. But it's clear that a significant constituency inside the country would identify with some sentiments along those lines. It's impossible to tell precisely how large a group that is. But some combination of factors has to explain why a people that have shown themselves perfectly ready to take to the streets to express their outrage in 2011 and again in 2013 would not have responded to the latest calls en masse, but instead allowed the protests against the Mubarak acquittal to be so relatively small.

 

Is it the economy, stupid?

 

One reason Egyptians might be defying local and international expectations with their apparent patience for the government, even given actions such as the acquittal of Mubarak which in the past would undoubtedly have been received as an unbearable provocation, is the growing sense that the Egyptian economy is on a sudden and unexpected uptick.

 

The 2011 rebellion and its aftermath sent the Egyptian economy into a terrifying tailspin and many of the fundamentals remain deeply worrying. Foreign currency reserves are grossly depleted. Budget deficits and national debt are still out of control. Fuel and food subsidies are dragging the economy down at the national level, and chronic unemployment is wrecking the finances of many at the family level. Many observers were on record as doubting that Egypt could possibly move forward at all economically given these challenges, let alone resolve what Stephen Cook in April aptly described as a full-blown "solvency crisis."

 

By late October, however, CNBC and other financial news outlets were able to begin seriously and soberly writing about "a surprisingly quick—and in the West, largely unnoticed—recovery." Sectors such as energy, healthcare, infrastructure and high-tech were all experiencing unexpected expansions. In an astonishing demonstration of investor confidence, patriotic solidarity and social commitment, the Egyptian government was able to finance its $8.5 billion Suez canal expansion project in a mere eight days, mainly through the sale of non-tradable five-year certificates sold to Egyptian citizens at a 12% interest rate.

 

Moreover, the Sisi-led government is using its ongoing honeymoon to take what would otherwise be politically-risky but economically-necessary actions. In June it cut energy subsidies — a long-standing proverbial third rail in Egyptian politics — by one third. The central bank raised interest rates in July in order to curb inflation after the fuel subsidy cuts sent prices soaring. The government has also moved to raise taxes in certain sectors.

 

Although Egypt's relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been decidedly rocky in recent years, relations are at last being restored, and in November the Fund finally completed an evaluation of the Egyptian economy, including a visit to the country by a high-level delegation. The IMF generally approved the Egyptian government's economic approach, predicting a fairly robust 3.8% growth rate in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

 

IMF delegation chief Chris Jarvis said that the Egyptian government has "set appropriate economic objectives" for the country's recovery. The IMF added that "they have begun bold subsidy and tax reforms, are pursuing a disciplined monetary policy, expanding social policies, and have initiated wide-ranging regulatory and administrative reform efforts to improve the business environment and boost investment."

 

There are a couple of key caveats, however, to bear in mind with regard to this apparent economic recovery.

 

The first is that it could simply prove to be a dreadful bubble. A series of factors including an infusion of capital from supportive Gulf states, an economic dimension to the sense of national urgency prompting patriotic but risky private investments in public schemes, and other forces might be pushing the economy forward in a palpable but unsustainable way. Indeed, dependency on the Gulf could reach $9 billion for the second half of 2014 alone. The bottom line is that the fundamentals of Egypt's economy are still the cause for serious concern.

 

Second, the Egyptian economic recovery — such as it is — is closely linked to investor confidence, both domestic and international, which in turn is closely linked to the security situation in the country. The Egyptian public seems largely united in the battle against what is undoubtedly a real terrorist threat, particularly in Sinai and remote and border areas, including increasingly on the Libyan border. The government maintains that it is making significant progress in fighting extremists.

 

However, critics note that the scale and intensity of terrorist violence, primarily aimed at Egyptian troops in remote areas, has only been increasing. It's very difficult to assess counterfactual arguments such as the idea that the problem would have been even worse if the government hadn't pursued its war on terrorism as it has. It's plausible to argue that instability in border regions is more closely linked to events on the other side of those borders, such as in Gaza or in Libya. Or that the policies of groups like Hamas and Ansar al-Sharia or Ansar Beit al-Maqdis are more decisive in shaping unrest in those border areas than in Egyptian government policies.

 

However, it's also plausible to argue that Egypt's current approach — particularly its wholesale crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood along with various aspects of its military counterterrorism strategy — has actually exacerbated rather than ameliorated the terrorist threat from violent extremists. As long as there is a domestic and international sense that Egypt is moving effectively to secure law and order, particularly in its cities and with regard to key infrastructure, investor confidence is likely to remain strong. Certainly the lack of major unrest as a consequence of the Mubarak verdict will be taken as an indicator that calm is being restored to a society that, in recent years, has been prone to bouts of chronic unrest. However, should that sense of confidence, whether justified or unjustified, begin to atrophy, it could undermine the influx and movement of capital that is underwriting Egypt's current spurt of economic growth.

 

Moreover, what happens when the social and political honeymoon for the new government — which cannot go on forever — finally really is over? Might Egypt be sitting on top of a powder keg of its own making with the long and slow fuse inexorably getting shorter and shorter as the spark relentlessly burns its way towards an explosion of some sort? Or is the country defying all regional and international expectations and coming together to move forward, however slowly? Even if, eventually, the tensions, heavy handedness and populist authoritarianism of the current political atmosphere in Egypt proves to be the price of stability and economic progress — assuming neither of those prove to be illusory — the difficult and painful question will almost certainly be: was it worth this? The answer, either way, won't be simple or obvious.

 

Hussein Ibish tweets @Ibishblog

The Mubarak acquittal is a perfect barometer of how opaque contemporary Egypt has become. (AFP Photo/STR)

There is a sense that the remnants of the old regime are becoming much bolder in reasserting their authority and rolling back the ‘revolution.’ It is as if, these voices say, the Arab Spring had never happened at all.”