Dotun Adebayo talks to freelance journalist Bel Trew about foreign diplomatic efforts to broker a deal between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
Cairo — It was not exactly a warm welcome: As Egypt’s new cabinet started its first day on the job, thousands of people were protesting outside, angry about a body that has already been met with criticism or tepid praise by everyone from ultraconservative salafis to liberal revolutionaries.
The new ministers are perhaps the most technocratic bunch since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago.
Respected economists have been installed in key positions, raising hopes that the new cabinet will move to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, created a new ministry of transitional justice, a small step towards probing the rampant human rights abuses which have occurred since the revolution.
What they lack, though, is universal political backing. None of the newly-appointed ministers hail from Egypt’s major Islamist movements. Deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood did not receive any portfolios, and senior members of the group have rejected any involvement. The salafi Nour party, Egypt’s second-largest bloc, also did not accept any of the positions it was offered.
Several jobs were filled by holdovers from the previous cabinet, which was widely criticised for failing to fix everything from street violence to power outages. Other ministers have ties to the Mubarak regime, most notably foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, who served as the longtime Egyptian ambassador to the United States.
So the clock is already ticking: The new cabinet takes office amid very high expectations, held together by the awkward alliance of politicians and generals who overthrew Morsi.
“This cocktail of ministers cannot work together effectively,” said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Nour. “I hope for them to succeed because I want Egypt to be stabilised, but from a managerial point of view I doubt they will.”
Technocrats and holdovers
Beblawi himself has been praised as a technocrat, and some of his ministers also bring lengthy professional experience to the job. The finance minister, Ahmed Galal, is a well-known economist who criticised Morsi for doing little to resolve the structural problems in Egypt’s economy. Ashraf El-Araby, the planning minister, and Hisham Zaazou, the tourism minister, have won praise from across the political spectrum.
Morsi’s last minister of investment was a Brotherhood cadre with a professional background in marketing mobile phones. His replacement, Osama Saleh, is an economist who once headed Egypt’s investment authority.
Critics say the new cabinet still under-represents women, but it is undeniably more diverse than the ones that preceded it. “This is the first time we have three Copts in the cabinet in the history of Egypt,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the founder of the Social Democratic Party, whose leadership have been tapped for the premiership and have been key in authoring this transitional period. “And we have [three] women in the cabinet. SCAF only had one, Mubarak only ever had two.”
Other appointments have drawn less praise, however. Electricity minister Ahmed Imam was first appointed by Morsi and will keep his job in the new cabinet, even though the country has been paralysed for months by worsening blackouts. (His solutions included urging Egyptians to turn down their air conditioners.)
More egregious, though less surprising, was the decision to keep interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in his post. Since Ibrahim took office last year, the police have almost disappeared from the streets, leading to a sharp rise in violent crime; meanwhile, rights groups say that police torture and other abuses remain rampant.
But the police openly sided with the coup that toppled Morsi, and the new government is eager to maintain the support of the security forces. “It’s dubious and unsatisfying, but I understand the political motivations,” said Bassem Sabry, a commentator and analyst here.
So there was little criticism of Ibrahim’s reappointment from Egypt’s political factions. Bakkar refused to comment, while Aboul Ghar defended Ibrahim’s record since Morsi’s ouster. “The interior minister was very much disliked during Morsi’s rule, but he has done a good job during the last few weeks,” he said.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Ibrahim said that restoring security would be a “top priority” for the new government.
He said little about police reform, though, and it’s unclear how Egypt’s new cabinet will pursue transitional justice without a major shakeup in the security services.
Defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was also sworn in again, just days after 51 people were killed outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo. Human Rights Watch issued a report this week which accused the military of using “unnecessary force” and called for a full investigation. But senior politicians have already admitted that seems unlikely. “We probably won’t get justice,” Aboul Ghar said.
‘An internal implosion’
The Nour party temporarily suspended its involvement in negotiations after the massacre, and it has kept itself at a distance from the new cabinet. Bakkar said that Nour was offered four ministerial jobs, as well as a vice premiership, but declined all of them to avoid appearing as if it had benefitted from joining the coalition against Morsi.
Analysts said their motivations might be more pragmatic: to stay out of a cabinet that will struggle to fix Egypt’s myriad problems.
“They affect the cabinet negotiations, but they know it will face challenges that might be beyond the capabilities of anyone,” Sabry said. “And some of their salafi base is supporting Morsi. So joining might be problematic for them, and they might face an internal implosion.”
Bakkar also criticised the cabinet for drawing too heavily from liberal parties. The prime minister and his deputy are both co-founders of the Social Democratic Party, and several other portfolios went to senior members of the Constitution Party and Wafd Party.
Aboul Ghar, however, said it would be difficult to find experienced figures without some party affiliation. “Most of the good technocrats joined the new political parties after the revolution,” he said. “Those who have joined the cabinet have had their party membership suspended.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the cabinet has been criticised by groups like Ahmed Maher’s April 6 movement, which condemned the inclusion of Mubarak-era figures. “How will those ministers achieve the goals of a revolution that was against their regime?” Maher said in a statement released on Wednesday.
‘A gun to someone’s head’
Standing on the sidelines, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood. A spokesman for the interim president, Ahmed el-Moslemany, said that the Brotherhood was offered cabinet positions but declined them.
Top Brotherhood officials have denied this, and Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, called the cabinet illegitimate. “We don’t recognise anyone in it,” he said.
|It’s like you put a gun to someone’s head and asked for reconciliation.Amr Darrag, Muslim Brotherhood official|
Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood leader and Morsi’s final minister of planning, said the group would not join the government while it is being “pursued.” Morsi remains under house arrest, and senior Brotherhood leaders have been arrested or brought in for questioning.
“We need to see any signs of seriousness,” said Darrag, who was replaced by Araby, the man he replaced just two months ago. “If you want to prove to be serious, then free the president, free the captive people, issue an independent investigation of what happened in front of the Republican Guard… do something to indicate that there is a real willingness.”
With the Brotherhood waiting in the wings and threatening to escalate its protests, the transitional government had to move forward quickly with the appointments. Aboul Ghar admits this affected the selection of ministers, as “there was not enough time to fish for new people for some posts.”
The prime minister also ignored requests to shrink the size of the cabinet, which now contains 34 ministers. Nour and other parties had suggested cutting it in half, and urged Beblawi to merge ministries like electricity and petroleum into a single energy ministry. “There is a lot of overlap between some of the portfolios,” Sabry said.
Last minute decision-making also highlighted the ongoing spats within the uncomfortable coalition that toppled Morsi. The head of Cairo’s opera house, Ines Abdel Daymen, told local channel ONTV that she was on her way to be sworn in when she got the call saying she was out because of criticism from Nour.
Meanwhile the army are orchestrating events and writing the timeline: Despite promises to the contrary, Egypt’s political factions were not consulted over the writing of the constitutional declaration, which laid out a schedule for elections and defined the powers of the government during the transitional period.
With investigations under way into military involvement in last Monday’s massacre and the police back to tear-gassing protesters on Cairo’s streets, there are few guarantees transitional justice will be served and change realised. “It’s like you put a gun to someone’s head and asked for reconciliation,” Darrag said.
After two-and-a-half years and several disastrous transitional periods, much is resting on this new government. Several cabinet ministers declined interview requests, saying it was too early to comment on their work. The cabinet’s backers, for their part, have promised everything from economic growth to a more transparent and inclusive political process, setting high expectations for the next six months.
“I think the situation will be better,” said Aboul Ghar. “This cabinet will do in a very short time things that all cabinets since Mubarak’s time failed to do.”
There will be blood,” 22-year old Diaa Galal told me, amid acrid plumes of tear gas on 26 November, the night before thousands of protesters once again flocked to Tahrir Square in Cairo.
No one had seen it coming. On 22 November, just a day after brokering a truce between Gaza and Israel, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, announced a constitutional declaration making his decisions immune to appeal, stripping the judiciary of powers and adding a stipulation that he can take any “necessary actions” to “protect the nation”.
Commentators described the Muslim Brotherhood president, whose supporters had helped oust Hosni Mubarak last year, as “a half-god”, a “pharaoh”; his decree was slammed as a “fascist coup”.
Street battles and protests erupted to the north in Port Said and Alexandria, down south in Assiut, to the west in Suez and in the capital. The stock market plunged almost 10 per cent, the $4.8bn IMF loan, which is in the last stages of negotiation, is on the line and the US has reportedly considered withdrawing aid.
Bloody battles between pro-and anti-Brotherhood crowds left a 15-year-old boy dead in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur, a one-time Brotherhood stronghold. Two teenage anti-government protesters were gunned down by police just off Tahrir Square and multiple offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have been stormed and torched.
Away from the streets, independent trade unions and the courts announced their rejection of the declaration. On Tahrir, a coalition of opposition forces has been staging an open-ended sit-in until Morsi backtracks: the square is a tent city once again.
“We are fighting a dictatorship. We have to stop it now,” says Mohamed Waked, a political writer and member of the National Front for Justice and Democracy, part of the coalition. He explains there are now no state institutions in place that can hold Morsi back.
“Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of these kinds of powers,” adds Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, standing by its tent on Tahrir Square.
The Brotherhood faction vehemently disagrees. There is no other way of Morsi steering Egypt through the transition period than by giving the president these powers, Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP, maintains. “Egypt is not a democracy, it is in a transition to a democratic state – so these measures must be taken.”
Morsi, for his part, called himself the “guarantor of the revolution” and said his actions were pushing stability. El-Haddad says the 22 November declaration was meant to pre-empt the dissolution of the constituent assembly – the committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution by Egypt’s courts –which remains peopled with Mubarak-era judges. This and the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, which also faces dissolution, were Egypt’s last two elected institutions, he told me, that “would create democracy”. Morsi’s declaration was intended to protect them.
However, the opposition, as Waked explains, sees the constituent assembly as corrupt and unrepresentative. Assembly members from al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest Islamic authority), the Coptic Church and a large proportion of the liberal and leftist forces have left the constitutiondrafting body. On 26 November, the last remaining non-Muslim Brotherhood female member, Manar el-Shorbagy, resigned. This leaves a Muslim Brotherhooddominated body to write the national charter, Waked notes – something the Islamists will protect at all costs.
El-Haddad flatly denies this accusation, saying Morsi has been “backstabbed” by the opposition, but concedes that there are no checks and balances on the president. “The people must trust him,” he insists. A tall order, the opposition says, for a country that lived through over 30 years of “temporary” emergency law.
The historic Gaza-Israel truce saw Egypt take centre-stage as a major geo-political player: as details of the ceasefire are fine-tuned amid growing instability in Egypt, Bel Trew takes a closer look at the losses and gains
The Gaza-Israel ceasefire agreement, brokered by Egypt and the US one week ago, has been largely forgotten amid Egypt’s current domestic troubles, as the country witnesses mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi’s “power grab” Constitutional Declaration and the pushing through of new Constitution.
Nevertheless, the historic truce – which ended eight days of cross-border rocket attacks – is seen by analysts as a highly significant development for the future of Middle-Eastern geopolitics, with much debate over who actually came out on top.
The agreement stipulates that hostilities by both sides, in the form of rockets and air and sea invasions, must stop, and that Israel must ease its maritime and border siege of the Gaza Strip.
In Israel, many see the ceasefire as a defeat for the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
“The reaction in Israel is overwhelmingly negative,” explained Al Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom, who was based on Israel’s border with Gaza throughout the course of the conflict.
Carlstrom described residents dragging mattresses to the hilltops overlooking the strip, and one Israeli man eating pizza while watching rockets pummel the Palestinian territory.
However, public support for the government during the offensive quickly turned to criticism when the terms of the truce were announced.
“The consensus here was that if Israel agrees to a ceasefire, then it will be broken and we’ll face another war in the future,” Carlstrom explained. “The people said they would like to see Hamas totally defeated, otherwise this truce gives Hamas time to re-arm and the whole process will be repeated.”
Residents he spoke to were pushing for a ground invasion. Nevertheless, when the 40,000 reserve troops were stationed at the Gaza borders, he said they were “surprisingly negative.”
“They recognised it was just for show, and because the troops were basically sitting in empty fields without shelter within rocket range, the people here thought they were sitting ducks,” Carlstrom said.
Overall, Carlstrom concluded that they believed that all Israel got out of this truce was temporary quiet. “A few people I spoke to even said Hamas had won,” he said.
Hamas: A regional power?
Certainly, minutes after the ceasefire was announced in Cairo on 21 November, there were jubilant and celebratory scenes as thousands took to the streets of Gaza – which had resembled a ghost town during Israel’s weeklong onslaught.
“I think it’s pretty clear who came out of this conflict a winner. Israel has continuously run on the platform that it is invincible, but [Hamas] has been able to refute this assertion,” Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Ahram Online. During the conflict, approximately 1,456 Hamas rockets reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The number and reach of the rocket-fire was unprecedented, asserted Reem Abou-El-Fadl, junior research fellow in international relations and Middle East politics at Oxford University. Consequently, Gaza has to be seen as the victor, as it resisted the massive onslaught while showing impressive resilience.
Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings-Doha Centre, agreed.
“Hamas can claim victory as long as it stands up to Israel’s rockets,” he said, adding that Arab officials entering Gaza – together with shows of solidarity from Turkey, Egypt and Qatar – meant that Hamas now enjoyed extraordinary regional legitimacy. ”It’s recognised as a political actor,” Hamid said. “Leaders of Hamas are being treated as leaders of a state, perhaps better treated.”
On a domestic level, human rights attorney and teaching fellow at Temple Law School Noura Erakat said that the combination of welcoming Arab diplomats and demonstrating enhanced military capacity not only ensured that Hamas was able to secure favourable terms in the ceasefire, but coincided with the fading relevance of rival Palestinian faction Fatah’s “strategy of negotiation and compliance.”
Hamas leader El-Zahar added that all their conditions had been included in the ceasefire agreement, such as the easing of maritime borders, although he was reserved about calling the agreement a “ceasefire” or “truce,” preferring to describe it as “a relative calm in violence.”
Despite government promises and calls from large sections of the Israeli public, Israel’s objective appears not to have been to destroy Hamas or to flatten Gaza.
Ahead of the January 2013 elections, commentators have claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to show a bit of muscle with the attack on Gaza.
However, international pressure on Tel-Aviv, prevented him from escalating operation “Pillar of Defense.”
“Netanyhu’s aim was to stop the rocket fire in the short term ahead of the [January 2013] elections,” Carlstom speculated, adding an ongoing war with Gaza as people headed to the polls, particularly as rocket fire was reaching the capital, would have damaged the incumbant’s chances.
So keeping the truce, Carlstrom continued, is vital to the current administration: if there is another barrage of rockets in the weeks preceding the polls, “people are going to say we told you so – Netanyahu will lose massive support at the polls, and the ceasefire will have backfired.”
For its part, Hamas did not want to escalate the conflict either: a ground invasion could have been devastating and may not have fulfilled their key demand of eased borders.
For once it appears that the interests of Hamas and Israel converged: they both wanted the rocket fire to stop.
Even America, who oversaw the negotiations as Israel’s staunch ally and pledged to replenish Israel’s depleted “Iron Dome” and arms capacities, regards war in the region as a “disaster.”
“America is stuck in a conflict where there is almost no good outcome,” said Eric Trager, New Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute, “the best outcome for the US is non-belligerence.”
The ceasing of hostilities for them was the only conclusion.
However, the ceasefire remains extremely fragile.
Only hours following the ceasefire, around 12 rockets were fired into Israel. Hamas denied responsibility, showing that Gaza’s ruling movement may not have complete control over the other armed Palestinian factions and so cannot promise to uphold the ceasefire terms.
Meanwhile, Israel on Saturday gunned down a 23 year-old Palestinian man and injured 15 for “attempting to breach the border”, the army claimed.
In addition, at least ten Gazan fishermen have been detained by Israeli authorities despite the ceasefire allowing them to fish three miles further out to sea than previously permitted by Israel.
While Gaza feels the blow of Israel’s violations of the truce and with Israel getting little more than peace and quiet, the question remains: who really came out on top?
Egypt: International player
The negotiations have been largely attributed to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, leading many observers to point out that Time magazine’s expected “Man of the year” might have been the one figure who gained the most from the agreement.
“It has become clear that the key to peace and war in the region is in the hands of Egypt,” an informed Egyptian diplomatic source told Ahram Online.
This, the source added, has reaffirmed Egypt’s central role in the region.
Mohamed Assem Ibrahim, former ambassador to Israel from 2005 to 2008, commented that Egypt positioned itself as the sole entity able to speak with the two sides, so the only force able to pull off the truce.
However, Ibrahim maintained that “this is a conflict that no one lost.”
Israel, while appearing to be in the weakest position, Ibrahim said, was at the very least able to show off its military capabilities with the anti-rocket defense “Iron Dome” system.
Relations with Israel
Many were expecting Morsi to decisively shift Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel, as Egypt’s first democratically elected president who also hails from an Islamist group.
Abou-El-Fadl claims that Morsi’s position confirms what many had suspected: the president is maintaining a conservative position to the Palestinian question.
“Egypt’s President is unwilling to change the status quo which Mubarak left and used this stance to secure US support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
She claims that all moves made so far can only be characterised as cosmetic changes, including the withdrawal of the ambassador, which did not see the closing down of the embassy and the opening of Rafah border crossing.
Even Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s visit to Gaza on 16 November, still resembled the language of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and Anwar El-Sadat’s regime.
“Speaking about peace for all nations in the region, as opposed to the fiery discourse traditionally employed by the Islamists on Palestine was indicative of this position,” she noted.
American observers also see little change in Egypt’s position on Israel.
Washington Institute’s Trager said the accomplishment for Egypt was that Morsi did not have to agree to Egypt doing anything in the ceasefire agreement.
This is something he said the international community has overlooked.
“While Israel was forced to concede the borders opening and Hamas to end rocket attacks, Morsi conceded nothing, especially any Egyptian role in preventing Hamas from re-arming,” Trager said.
In addition, the Egyptian president did not have to fully recognise Israel, despite Washington reading it that way.
Morsi refused to meet with Israeli officials and outsourced negotiations to intelligence professionals as well as authoring terms of a truce which left Hamas stronger, Trager asserted.
Nevertheless Morsi proved himself to be pragmatic on the regional and global stage, which aside from winning him brownie points in the international community, secured him real financial gains.
“He is learning how to play the foreign policy game,” Trager continued,” and how to have good relations with the US as this is critical to economic recovery for Egypt.”
This is why the release of the internationally panned Constitutional Declaration could be so potentially damning.
There are fears that as the country becomes increasingly unstable the International Monetary Fund’s $4.8billion loan and US economic aid might be retracted.
“The bottom line is the international community has been very slow to see the Brotherhood for what they are… to see their dictatorial tendencies,” Trager asserted, citing Morsi’s decree as an example of Brotherhood power grabs.
“Morsi created the illusion to the US that he could serve as some sort of negotiator between Hamas and Israel.”
The US, he said, wants to believe that whatever disagreement they have with Morsi’s ideas and rhetoric he can still be an ally for “counter-terrorism regional peace.”
However, Trager added, as long as the Egyptian president continues to establish a new dictatorship that creates chaos in Egypt this will not be possible.
Morsi, relying on this new political capital gained from negotiating the truce, may have overstepped the mark by releasing the Constitutional Declaration and pushing through a controversial Constitution at such a crucial stage.
An escalating breakdown within Egypt’s domestic political arena could seriously impact ongoing negotiations to buttress the Israel-Gaza tentative truce: how can the Egyptian president broker peace deals, if he does not have a handle on the situation at home?
The international fallout from Morsi’s power grab, commentators say, remains to be seen.