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The ‘deep state’

Jan 21,2014 - Last updated at Jan 21,2014

Despite sporadic protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Egypt managed to pass an important milestone last week when it successfully held a two-day constitutional referendum.

The poll was one of the main objectives of the military-drawn roadmap that was issued following last July’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi.

It now opens the way for another major goal which is to hold a fresh presidential election, in March, to be followed by new legislative elections.

The turnout for the constitutional referendum was less than what was expected by the media and polls, at about 39 per cent of those eligible to vote. Still, the result was an overwhelming “yes” for the new constitution, sending a message that Egyptians wanted stability and security, six months after the overthrow of Morsi.

It was a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support the movement, since more people turned out to vote for the new constitution than in 2012, when the Islamists drafted their own basic law.

Everything is relative, really, as Egypt inches slowly towards restoring full democratic rule while recovering from the tumultuous events that marked the three years following the unseating of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The election of Morsi divided the Egyptian people even when he was celebrated as Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

Eventually his contentious policies and accusations of serving his Islamist followers at the expense of the rest of citizens forced the army to step in to save the country.

A new figure emerged on the scene, the army’s top man, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. He has become the central figure in Egyptian politics and his popularity has reached record levels as he contemplates calls to run for president in March.

He is expected to make his decision soon and pundits believe he will contest the presidential election.

Egypt needs a strong leader now and while the lofty goals of the January 25 uprising may have been sidestepped, the priority now for most Egyptians is the restoration of stability and the defeat of terrorism.

Those who believe that Egypt rid itself of six decades of military rule will be disappointed. The military establishment will continue to play a central role in Egyptian political life.

The new constitution has given unprecedented privileges to the military establishment and the defence minister.

And those who think that the June 30 demonstrations against Morsi’s rule underlined the goals of the January 25 uprising are also wrong.

The fact is that a new course has been set for the country, one that resurrects the so-called “deep state” with its ruling and influential elite who is allied with the military.

It is not unlike the Mubarak era when an authoritarian clique used to govern through artificial democratic institutions.

It is also a disappointment to a generation of young and secular Egyptians who constituted the driving force behind the uprising that eventually toppled Mubarak.

This is probably one reason for the modest participation of young people in the latest referendum.

The state waged war against the Muslim Brotherhood, putting its president on trial and declaring the movement illegal and a terrorist organisation. But it soon turned its attention to critics of the military coup that took place on July 3 last year, and that including liberal and secular figures.

Today the leaders of the April 6 youth movement sit in prison awaiting trial. And, recently, charges were brought against nationalist, Islamist and liberal figures, all of whom made critical statements against the state and controversial court rulings.

But most Egyptians are tired and want stability. They are now willing to overlook the reinstatement of the military’s rule in return for an end to chaos and economic stagnation.

They also know that a strong military is the only answer to spreading terrorist attacks that are slowly moving from far-away Sinai and into the heart of the Nile Valley.

Sisi knows that his decision to run for president will be greeted by millions. He had hoped that a big turnout for the referendum will justify his decision.

So far his candidacy is the only realistic scenario for the future. But if he decides not to run, the political stage will have to be rearranged.

There are no strong candidates who can create a popular surge and unify Egyptians. Political parties are small and ineffective and with the Islamists absent, none of the remaining players can rally the crowds.

There is a sense of urgency about concluding the goals of the roadmap and restoring legitimate institutions.

The military-backed transitional government failed to alleviate economic burdens, which have become Egyptians’ most important concern.

Naturally, Sisi knows that moving to the presidential palace will not end Egypt’s huge challenges.

The popularity he enjoys today may suffer a year or two from now if his government fails to revive the economy or defeat the terrorists. But this is a price he must be ready to pay.

The path towards completing the goals of the roadmap is open now and in few months, Egypt will move into a new post-Islamist era.

But the new republic that will emerge will have many similarities with the one that crumbled in January 2011.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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