After Hosni Mubarak was toppled power, Egypt seemed to be en-route to a new era. But the country is now more divided than ever, and democracy still a distant dream. What went wrong?
The news coming out of Cairo these days is characterized by political battles, religious riots and economic downturn, and the transitional route to democracy appears to have hit a wall. Images of violence and chaos dominate reports from the city on the Nile, and could not be further from those of the excitement and euphoria that filled the nation in the immediate aftermath of Hosni Mubarak's demise.
Back then many Egyptians thought they were standing on the threshold of a new era - one with greater freedom, more rights and enough bread for everyone. But that is not what happened, and many are now cursing the revolution, and asking "what went wrong?"
The polarizing force of religion
The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are often cited as contributing to the mistakes and failures of the transitional process. Political analyst Emad Gad from the Al-Ahram center in Cairo believes they got it wrong from the very beginning, in that rather than convening a constitutional assembly, as Tunisia did, the army and the Islamists pushed for early parliamentary elections. Egyptians followed this lead, and voted in favor of the ballot in the March 2011 referendum. Egypt then began its dance with democracy, without having first learned the steps. Worse than that, Gad says, is that the hurried poll divided society into the Islamists and secularists. And that polarization has characterized political discourse ever since.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, which garnered almost 50 percent of votes in the parliamentary elections at the end of 2011, and whose presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi was elected six months later as Egypt's first civilian head of state, put religion on the agenda from the outset. "In Egypt, religion is the easiest way to get votes," Gad says. "Forty percent of the population is illiterate, which means many are easy to influence."
Failure to understand democracy
Stephan Roll, Egypt expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) is critical of both the Muslim Brotherhood's polarization policies, and of the opposition. "The secular powers want to rule on an equal footing, but in so doing, they render the election results obsolete."
That said, he believes the Islamists see their victory at the ballot box as carte blanche to rule with absolute power. "Both sides clearly fail to understand the true meaning of democracy," Roll says.
Since the landslide victory of the Islamists at the parliamentary elections, the political debate in Egypt has focused almost entirely on the role of religion in the constitution, the media and society. Revolutionaries' calls for social justice have been faded out and politicians are not beyond ignoring Egypt's economic issues. Roll says that until politicians learn to deal with pressing issues independently of more fundamental ones, the country cannot move forward.
Resistance to the ways of old
While the Egyptian opposition seeks to blame the Islamists for the economic stagnation and political status quo, the Islamists themselves say the current problems are a hangover from the former regime, and that followers of Mubarak's old regime are obstructing the path to progress. To what extent that is really true, is bitterly contested. Emad Gad says Mubarak's legacy lives on in the form of corruption, torture and nepotism, but that blaming his followers for the current ills of Egyptian society is more likely "an excuse by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is reluctant to reform."
Roll, however, believes the extent to which the old system influences the new one is underestimated. Mubarak's regime was not only made up of two or three families, but was represented in the economic elite, the judiciary and the security apparatus. The fact that Mubarak's former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, won 48 percent of votes at last year's presidential elections could be seen to underscore that theory. So could the dissolution of the Islamic-dominated parliament, as ordered by Egypt's top judges.
In search of a middle-man
The lack of trust all round has almost brought the transitional process in Egypt to a halt, and many believe there will be no real progress until either an individual or a national institution steps in as a middle-man to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.
And as there is no Egyptian Nelson Mandela in sight, many are looking to the military to breech the gap. But Emad Gad doesn't see them as the right people for the job. "The months under military leadership directly after Mubarak's collapse were a catastrophe," he recalls. "The generals were only interested in securing their privileges in the new era."
Recently a group of activists said they had collected a million signatures calling for the military to take over again. Yet if the army really were to make a political comeback, Egypt's transition to democracy would be dead in the water.