Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Egypt's chaos

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In the lead up to Egypt's first ‘free and fair' election, the streets of Cairo have become increasingly chaotic.

On November 25, tens of thousands of people protested in Tahrir Square demanding an end to the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak lost power in February. More than a week of civil unrest and government crackdowns left 42 people dead and 3000 injured.

There are not only tensions between political parties in Egypt but also a resentment of ‘foreigners' - seen in conspiracy theories of ‘foreign meddling' in Egyptian politics, and also in recent attacks on foreign journalists.

Eldad Beck a Ynet reporter was attacked by two men in Cairo and escaped from a drug scheme on November 25, he writes:

"Yelling and threatening, they said they were police detectives and demanded to see my ID. When I said I had left my documents back at the hotel, the two decided to crank up the violence. One grabbed me by the arm, yelling that I was about to be thrown in jail. They asked to see my bag, and when they opened it, they found a baggie that wasn't there before: Drugs. This was when Marwan decided to interject: ‘Pay him off,' he urged me. ‘If he calls the cops, you'll be in big trouble.' I said that don't have money and have no problem with them calling the police, but that angered them even more. They began pushing me around. Finally, they took a break to confer, at which point I made a run for it. I caught the first cab that passed by, and was out of there."

Beck notes that his friend Marwan blamed supposed foreign funding of protests for the unrest, as do others Egyptians quoted in international news stories. Meanwhile, journalists say that the protestors of Tahrir Square are equally paranoid. John Lyons of the Australian noted:" On the eve of Monday's parliamentary election, the square is a hostile place. Journalists are now seen as spies."

There are also reports of sexual assaults on female journalists. A French TV journalist, Caroline Sinz told France 3 television that on November 24 she was punched and roughed up, and then "subjected to a sexual aggression in front of everyone in full daylight." Providing more detail in an interview with RMC radio, she said boys 14 to 16 years old "tore off my clothes and undergarments" and assaulted her.

Another female journalist was also attacked that day - Mona Eltahawy, a prominent Egyptian-born US columnist, who said aid she was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. Eltahway is a women's rights defender, a lecturer on the role of social media in the Arab world and a former Reuters journalist. According to Ynet, the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders advised news outlets to momentarily suspend sending women to Egypt, following the two reports of sexual assaults on the female journalists.

In another sign of chaos, the Egyptian economy is falling apart. Egypt's stock exchange has all but collapsed, (down 11% in the first three days of this week) and the Egyptian pound looks similarly in danger, as residents and foreigners flee to hard currency.

According to al Ahram, contributing to Egypt's currency crisis is the fact that the banks cannot meet the demand for currency because it is impossible transport bank notes as often mobs hijack the armored cars.

"Armoured money transfer vehicles were not safe anymore because law breakers take advantage and target the vehicles for a hijack...Transferring dollars between banks and exchange companies has become worrying more than ever."

A black market is also growing as a result of the failing Egyptian currency, where the dollar is sold an even higher price.

Meanwhile, in light of the chaos and the protests in the streets, the Egyptian military is seeing itself as the bastion of stability and is arguing that the protestors do not represent the majority of Egyptians who would prefer the military rule in the interim for stability. The SCAF is so confident that they have the support of the ‘silent majority', that the interim head of state and chairman of the council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, last week offered to hold a referendum on whether the council should stay in power to see through the transition process.

A Reuters article in the Jerusalem Post looked at the issue of the Egyptian ‘silent majority':

"The silent majority, if it exists, has not coalesced into a large political party. Former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party have regrouped into small parties but they have few election posters or stickers and rarely appear on television. Opinion polls conducted since February have hardly registered their existence. The discourse of the silent majority, as expressed at rallies or on the Internet, bears a striking resemblance to that of Mubarak's supporters during the last throes of his reign in February, with an emphasis on foreign conspiracies and the need for law and order to abort them.

The Silent Majority Coalition says in an official statement on its website that the West is hatching a plot to weaken and isolate Egypt by using its local agents to install an extreme Islamist government, which the West could then turn against as a threat to international peace and security. ‘Through its agents throughout Egypt, the West will encourage strikes and sit-ins everywhere, in order to ensure that production does not return to full capacity ... so the government will have to seek loans from international organizations subject to the United States and the Zionist lobby,' it adds.

Members of the military council have likewise accused some of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries of receiving finance from Western countries. Writer Alaa el-Aswany, who supports the revolutionaries, in turns accuses the generals of turning a blind eye to Gulf financial support for Islamist groups. Ironically, while Western aid to the Tahrir Square groups is either unproven or very indirect, the military council itself still receives more than $1 billion a year from the United States, in what Egyptian generals have described in Wikileaks documents as the price for maintaining peace with Israel.

The size of the purported silent majority may not even matter, especially if it fails to vote in parliamentary elections starting on Monday. Doctor Ahmed Hassan, who treated wounded demonstrators at a field clinic in Tahrir last week, dismissed the notion of a silent majority. ‘We call them the Couch Party. They will never get up off the couch, so we just have to press on,' he said."

Despite the chaos, parliamentary elections occurred today as planned and it is anticipated that the Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood will receive a plurality or even majority of votes. Whether the aftermath of the election will bring greater stability remains to be seen, although it does appear unlikely.

Sharyn Mittelman

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