During my visits to Egypt’s capital over the past year, it seems as if, superficially at least, little has changed since the country’s revolution in February 2011. No matter what greater political changes go on above, ordinary life continues as normal. There are minor alterations of course – the telltale signs of change. As we speed along the ring road, the centre for police training looms ahead of us, the large Hollywood-style letters that adorn its outer walls read simply ‘POLICE ACADEMY’ – the ‘MUBARAK’ that once preceded it having been hastily torn down. Occasionally we see the familiar images of Tahrir Square, choked with protesters, images that are now emblematic of the beginning of a new period in Egypt’s history. The black, white and red stripes of the Egyptian flag flutter everywhere, or appear daubed on walls alongside paling revolutionary messages.
But as the paint of these revolutionary messages fades, so too has the initial jubilation and sense of a new democratic era faded into disenchantment and political stagnation. It is over a year since the overthrow of President Hosnei Mubarak and progress in the interim has been slow. Egypt itself remains a country deeply beset by problems. There was a 32% drop in the number of tourists coming to Egypt during 2011, a dangerous decline for the huge number who depend on the country’s burgeoning tourism sector.
Levels of youth unemployment, illiteracy and living standards remain relatively high, while approximately a quarter of the Egyptian population are now living below the poverty line. And as the Egyptian military council, with all of its associations with the Mubarak regime, continues to maintain power here, it is easy to see how Egyptians have become disillusioned by the lack of immediate and significant change.
However, Parliamentary elections were held at the beginning of this year and the Presidential election is scheduled for the end of May, giving cause to growing political interest and hope again. Amr Moussa, the former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief, is among the frontrunners for the post. Three other main candidates – Hazem Ismail, the leader of the ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nour Party, Omar Suleiman, the former Intelligence chief, and Khairat Al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party – have been banned from running.
The support for the Al-Nour Party’s candidate, following their winning 28% of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections, is a worrying development. An increase in conservative Islamic policy in such a major authority in the Middle East may result in further Arab hostility towards neighbouring Israel. The move towards such a right wing politics will also cause uneasiness within Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, which as the country’s largest religious minority holds a fragile relationship with the Islamic majority.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who hold a plurality in the People’s Assembly, have traditionally been feared by the West for their founding commitment to Sharia law, but there have adopted less extremist positions thus far. They have gained public support through charitable and social work in the community, rather than putting forward a clear manifesto. They are more liberal than the Salafists – for example, they are reluctant to fully commit to a ban on alcohol, as the Salafists have.
They are also keen to work with other groups and claim that the key to Egypt’s future prosperity is not major policy change but making existing policy more effective by fighting corruption. The Party backs a minimum wage, would not touch state subsidies that help the poor, wants improved government regulation of markets and an end to monopolies. But they remain vague on the finer points of how this would be achieved.
In addition to members of the main political parties, the Presidential elections have attracted the attention of a large number of independent candidates as well. Coffee shop owners, restaurant owners, cleaners and even a ‘repentant thief’ have all, in Egypt’s current mood of democratic opportunity, begun to campaign, despite needing 30,000 signatures to stand. The chances of success for these candidates are slim, but it is encouraging nevertheless to see many are seizing the democratic opportunities the new political climate now affords.