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Egypt: Calling a spade by its name

And as Egypt prepares itself for the next stage in its tentative experiment with democratic rule, other leaders who harbour similar Islamist ambitions would do…

And as Egypt prepares itself for the next stage in its tentative experiment with democratic rule, other leaders who harbour similar Islamist ambitions would do well to take note that there is a limit to how much ordinary voters would stomach their radical agendas.

Egypt is certainly not the only Muslim country where the government’s attempts to ignore the concerns of ordinary voters have provoked popular backlash. Last month parts of Turkey were brought to a standstill over the seemingly innocuous issue of the pedestrianization of a popular Istanbul park.  The sudden explosion of dissent reflected a deeper disquiet throughout the country at the increasingly autocratic conduct of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
In Iran the surprise victory of Hassan Rouhani in last month’s presidential elections was widely seen as a protest vote against the conservative hardliners around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, whose confrontational stance over Iran’s nuclear programme has led to the imposition of hard-hitting economic sanctions, with devastating consequences for the Iranian economy.
As a long-serving member of Iran’s security establishment, Mr Rouhani can hardly be considered a moderate. But his promise to pursue liberal social policies, and to end state interference in people’s lives, meant that he was seen as a welcome alternative to the authoritarian style of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his election has certainly raised hopes that Iran will have a less oppressive government under his leadership.
Attempts by hard-line Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra to seize control of Syria’s opposition movement has backfired to the extent that many Western governments that support the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad have been reluctant to arm the rebels for fear weapons will end up in the hands of terror groups such as al-Qaeda. In Libya, meanwhile, where Western military support helped opposition fighters to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship, attempts to form an effective government have been stymied by the insistence of Islamist groups to apply sharia law.
As recent events in Egypt have shown, the main motivation of many of those taking part in anti-government protests is to improve their economic well-being. Indeed, the wave of Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 was prompted by economic concerns, not Islamist ideology. The desire of protesters to rid their countries of corrupt and inefficient dictatorships was motivated by the need for jobs and better economic prospects, not their replacement by authoritarian religious regimes.
And it is for this reason that the turbulent scenes in Egypt could herald a turning point in the fortunes of the Arab uprisings. Until now Islamist organisations such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have been able to exploit popular demands for a more democratic system of government for their own ends. But after the ignominious fate suffered by Mr Morsi’s regime in Cairo this week, pro-democracy campaigners can claim to have gained an important victory at the expense of Islamist ideologues.
Ever since Egyptian demonstrators first took to the streets two years ago to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, they have suffered from one glaring handicap: they do not have a leader. The demonstrators who occupied Tahrir Square at the start of the unrest two years ago, as well as those have taken up residence at the same location, have been very clear in articulating what they do not want: for the current regime to remain in power.
During the original Tahrir Square demonstrations there were vague noises made about the establishment of democracy and the rule of law, but the failure of the protesters to put forward a capable and articulate leader to press their case meant that when the elections did take, place the Muslim Brotherhood – which has long campaigned against Western-style democracy – emerged as the victors. And I fear the protesters are no nearer to achieving their goals this time round than they were in 2011. Precisely what kind of government they would like to see if he is driven from office is very much an open question.
And without decisive leadership, the current unrest is likely to result in Egypt falling once more under military dictatorship, a result that would negate all the sacrifices that have been made by ordinary Egyptians.
Sani Hadejia wrote from National Open University of Nigeria, Gusau Study Centre<[email protected]>