Melanie Phillips

23 November 2011

Egypt: between the devil and the deep blue sea

Published in: Daily Mail

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The violence in Egypt has continued to escalate as the demonstrators out on the streets insist that the army council step down immediately. A brief truce brokered by clerics earlier today appears to have collapsed. There is no doubt that Egypt’s military regime has behaved, and will continue to behave, with great brutality. But as I wrote here two days ago, Egypt is between the devil and the deep blue sea. Bad as the military regime may be, the most likely alternative of a Muslim Brotherhood regime would be worse. The army cracks down on dissent, which is bad enough; the Islamists, however, crack down on the freedom just to be.

The Egyptian military regime seems more than a little uncertain about what to do, as well it might be. For it too is between a rock and a hard place. If it allows the planned parliamentary elections to go ahead on November 28, it is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will gain power. If it postpones the elections, however, that would enrage the protesters even more.  

The head of the army council, Field Marshal Tantawi, has said the elections planned for five days hence will go ahead and the presidential election will be brought forward to next summer. He has also floated the idea of a referendum on the army’s role-- presumably on the assumption that the silent majority of ‘Middle Egypt’ would vote to keep the army in power in order to keep the Islamists out. None of Tantawi’s proposals, however, has pacified the protesters who are clearly on a roll.

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is said to be happy with Tantawi’s assurances. Indeed, from their point of view what’s not to like? The elections will probably bring them to power. To make matters even more complex, the Brotherhood has been steadily making inroads into the army itself. So it’s shaping up to be not just army v protesters but army v army. Either way, therefore, the Brotherhood wins.

Egypt is the issue where democracy meets sentimentality head on. For just as those Egyptians who yearn for true democracy and human rights are probably heading for a most terrible reality check, so those in the west from David Cameron downwards, who so naively bought into the fantasy that deposing Mubarak would lead to democracy because the protesters were on Twitter and Facebook, will eventually have to face up to the fact that in Egypt there will be no good outcome. The alternatives are a bad outcome that is disastrous for the west, and a bad outcome that maintains a fragile equilibrium for the west.

Of course people’s sympathies are with those at the receiving end of the Egyptian army’s tear gas, rubber bullets and worse. When it comes to public image, men in braids and shades cannot compete with civilians being mown down while crying out for democracy.

But sentimentalised democracy – elections without the prior heavy lifting of the establishment of free institutions – is the route not to freedom but yet more abuses of power. And the brutal fact is that if the army council departs the Egyptian stage, the Islamists will take power – and then the outcome will not just be a snuffing out of human rights for the Egyptians but a whole new ballgame of threat for the west.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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Contact Melanie