Arabian Fights - Rebecca Lowe

Egypt recently completed its first free elections for six decades. Yet behind this celebration of democracy lies a murkier reality, with the army, Islamists, liberals and old guard vying for power. IBA Global Insight meets those involved in Egypt’s transition to democratic rule, including leading presidential candidate Amr Moussa, former Secretary-General of the Arab League.

I’m lost on my way to meet Amr Moussa. This is not at all unusual for me, but probably inevitable in Cairo, where 11 million people compete for space and roads weave and tangle like clumps of vermicelli noodles. Luckily on this particular detour I am rescued by a young man who knows exactly where I’m meant to be: Tahran Square, just down the road.

The man, Abdullah, is a 32-year-old taxi driver from Alexandria who has lived in Cairo for 11 years. Since October he has spent much of his time protesting against Egypt’s military rule, first in Tahrir Square and later outside the parliamentary buildings in Magles El Shaab St, where the bulk of the demonstrators have relocated. He tells me why the cause is so important to him. ‘We want to change the army and the big boss Ganzouri,’ he says, speaking of the prime minister appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in November. ‘We want new faces, not old men from the past.’

But, what about Amr Moussa, is he old or new? ‘No, no, he is felool!’ he cries, meaning ‘remnant’. ‘He has a big tail from the old regime, and a big tummy. He was fattened by Mubarak.’

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Convincing Egypt’s disenchanted voters that he is a breath of fresh air rather than a Mubarak crony is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Moussa in his bid for the presidency. He has commanded an impressive lead in the polls since the regime fell. YouGov gave him a 49 per cent share of the vote last February and Synovate a 42 per cent share in October – vastly more than his nearest competitor. But, his anti-establishment credentials are hardly overwhelming. From 1952 he worked as an Egyptian diplomat, and from 1991 to 2001 he served as Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, before leaving domestic politics to take office as Secretary-General of the Arab League.

Free but flawed

Moussa himself is unapologetic about his record. ‘Not only do I not deny it,’ he says defiantly; ‘I am proud of it.’ We are sitting in his office during a sliver of time between meetings on his campaign trail, and the 75-year-old is perched forward on his chair with his feet apart and hands clasped. His pose suggests a kind of relaxed intensity, and his energy and charisma are palpable. I am instantly suspicious – I am yet to meet a bad man who wasn’t unashamedly charming – but I vow to keep an open mind. He has escaped many of the corruption scandals engulfing his former colleagues, after all, and his continued popularity among a population baying for blood is impressive.


I ask him first whether he feels that the elections for the People’s Assembly were free and fair. Overall, they went ‘alright’, he believes – ‘mostly’. His qualified enthusiasm is understandable. The elections, dominated by the Islamists, were the first truly democratic ones for 60 years, free for the most part from rigging or political intimidation. Yet a series of allegations and administrative errors sullied the process, including a lack of independent monitors, secretive and flawed ballot counting, religious campaigning around polling booths, and the appointment of judges with political affiliations.

Egypt: From dictatorship to democracy

2011: 24 Jan:   Thousands of people take part in a ‘day of rage’ in Tahrir Square, Cairo, protesting against corruption, poverty and government abuses. Further protests break out around the country.
  11 Feb:   Mubarak resigns as president and hands over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
  13 Feb:  SCAF dissolves Egypt’s Parliament and suspends the Constitution. It says it will hold power for six months or until elections can be held.
  3 Mar: Ahmed Shafik steps down as Prime Minister and is replaced by Essam Sharaf.
  19 Mar: A constitutional referendum is held and 77.27 per cent agree to amend the old Constitution.
  1/8 Apr: Thousands of demonstrators flock to Tahrir Square to protest against the slow pace of change and demand the resignation of remaining regime figures.
  25 Apr: A poll released by Pew Global Attitudes Project shows Egyptians are suspicious of the US and wish to renegotiate the Israeli peace treaty. They have mixed feelings about Islamic fundamentalists.
  27 May: Thousands of demonstrators return to Tahrir Square to protest against SCAF. They demand an end to military trials and justice for those responsible for killing protesters. 
  July: Every Friday, hundreds of thousands of protesters gather across Egypt to voice frustration with SCAF. Islamist protesters are largely absent.
  10 Sep: Protesters attack the Israeli embassy, forcing the ambassador to flee. Demonstrations against SCAF continue and the state of emergency is reintroduced.
  October:   A poll by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo says that 89.4 per cent of Egyptians are confident SCAF can govern the transition to democracy. In addition, 44.3 per cent say they would prefer a civil state, while 45.6 per cent would prefer an Islamic state.
  9 Oct:  A group dominated by Coptic Christians protests in front of the Maspero TV building in Cairo following the burning of churches in Upper Egypt. At least 25 people are killed in clashes with the security forces.
  1 Nov: Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy releases a ‘Declaration of the Fundamental Principles of the New Egyptian State’ (aka the ‘Selmy document’), which gives SCAF unprecedented powers and immunities over parliament and the Constitution.
  18 Nov: Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protest against the Selmy document in Tahrir Square. Between 30 and 40 protesters are killed and 2,000 are injured.
  18 Nov: SCAF accepts the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet and later appoints Kamal El-Ganzouri in his place, a former Prime Minister under Mubarak. SCAF apologises for the deaths of protesters and brings forward the presidential elections to June 2012. Protests continue.
  28 Nov –
3 Jan 2012:
Three rounds of elections are held for the People’s Assembly, or lower house of parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood storm to victory, followed by the more extreme al-Nour party.
  16 Dec: Security forces and the army clash with protesters in Cairo, leaving hundreds injured and a handful dead. Several members of the advisory council resign in protest.
  29 Dec: A series of raids take place on Egyptian civil rights organisations, which are accused of operating without licences and receiving foreign funds.
 2012: 23 Jan: The People’s Assembly meets for the first time after assuming legislative powers.
  29 Jan –
22 Feb:
Elections for the Shura Council take place.
  Feb – Mar: The new parliament will form a constitutional committee and write the new Constitution.
  By 31 Mar: A referendum on the Constitution will be held (to be confirmed by SCAF)
  15 Apr: Egypt will open nominations for president.
  June: The presidential elections will take place. The new president is due to take office on 1 July.


One main concern is that the elections were held too early, giving the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has formed strong links in the community during years of political oppression, a huge advantage. They were almost certainly helped by the complexity of the voting system, in which the public had to choose 332 seats from party lists and 166 individual candidates across 27 governorates, most of which were utterly unknown to them.

Due to these concerns, the secular Free Egyptians party threatened to boycott the elections to choose the upper house, from 29 January to 22 February, as IBA Global Insight went to press, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei decided to pull out of the presidential race. ElBaradei said his ‘conscience’ did not permit him to continue in his campaign due to the lack of democratic framework – though his strongly liberal outlook meant his chances of winning the post were slim.

Moussa, however, refuses to be downbeat. ‘I know that there are a lot of people who are very negative: everything is bad. But this will not get us anywhere. We are talking about the legislative elections here, but there will be other elections. This is not the end of the story, this is just the beginning.’

There are a lot of people who are very negative... This is not the end of the story, this is just the beginning

Amr Moussa

For Moussa, postponing the elections and convincing SCAF to hand over power to a civilian government – as proposed by ElBaradei, among others – were never viable options, and would merely serve to extend the transition and undermine stability. Many agree with him, but many do not. For the protesters in and around Tahrir Square, SCAF has managed the post-revolution transition with all the care and sensitivity of a litter of Egyptian wildcats, and their cause is hard to dispute. Since February 2011, the army has killed up to 100 protesters, beaten and tortured hundreds more, subjected 12,000 people to military trials, imprisoned around 4,000 without due process, and launched an aggressive and prolonged campaign against civic organisations across the country.

It has also shown itself particularly unwilling to cede power. In November, SCAF published a set of supra-constitutional principles, dubbed the ‘Selmy document’ after former deputy prime minister Ali al-Selmy, which would give it veto power over parliament, authority over the military budget and chief control over the writing of the new Constitution. It was almost universally condemned – including by Moussa – and prompted a renewed surge of unrest. Though SCAF finally agreed to discard the document, suspicions remain over what pacts and transactions may be taking place in the shadows to ensure its continuation in everything but name.

Army abuses

There is indeed ‘a gap in the trust’, Moussa concedes, with characteristic understatement. He is, I soon realise, a consummate diplomat. The army controls up to 20 per cent of the country’s economy and still commands the respect of much of the Egyptian population. To condemn an organisation with such vast popular, political and economic power takes a certain amount of chutzpah – chutzpah Moussa either lacks or has decided he does not have the luxury to embrace.

Speaking of the recent raids on human rights organisations, accused of ‘foreign funding’, Moussa is vague and almost defensive. ‘It will take time for the people to understand that [...] civil society is part of the political and economic and social scene, and also for those organisations to understand that there are a lot of doubts on this point and they have to assure the public of their role.’

OK, but what about the military trials? There have been about 12,000. ‘This was some kind of accusation by the government and I didn’t really pursue what happened after that,’ Moussa says, cutting me off. I am unsure what he means, and try again.

Moussa interrupts again; it is something he does often. ‘There were no charges, there were accusations, right? Because I didn’t follow that. There are charges, are there? By the courts? By the public prosecutor?’ I reiterate that apparently there have been around 12,000 military trials which have not gone through the normal court processes.

‘This has to be investigated in order for the truth to be known, and I think the sooner the better.’

A little later I try to return to the subject, and bring up the 4,000 protesters in jail. Again, I am cut off. ‘What do you have against the military council?’ he asks, his voice jovial but sharp. ‘I see you are bombarding every question: military council, military council, military council. I am not in this group that is trying to attack the military council morning, afternoon and evening, for whatever reasons they have. I need stability in the country.’

Stability, yes. But justice also, surely? Here Moussa sounds faintly reminiscent of the state media, controlled by SCAF and used to discredit those remaining in Tahrir Square. Whether this is pragmatic realism or cowardly realpolitik is hard to say. As Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, tells me later that day: ‘This is the same discourse as Mubarak – stability. This is why the West were supporting him, because they thought he would secure stability. But it was proved it was not sustainable.’

Sticks and stones

When Moussa and I meet, on 15 December, there have been two recent altercations between the demonstrators and army: in October, during a peaceful Coptic Christian protest, in which 26 people reportedly died; and in November, when thousands took to the streets to protest against the Selmy document, in which around 40 people died. After the latter conflict, the army apologised, dismissed the government and appointed Kamal El-Ganzouri as Prime Minister. Yet on 16 December, tension erupted again, leaving hundreds wounded and a handful dead, prompting the resignation of several members of SCAF’s civilian advisory committee.

It will take time for the people to understand that civil society is part of the political and economic and social scene, and also for those organisations to understand that there are a lot of doubts on this point and they have to assure the public of their role
Amr Moussa

One of those caught up in the violence was Kareem Muhammad, a 28-year-old surgeon. When we first meet in Tahrir Square two days before the clash, all is calm and he is manning a doctor’s tent. Only a few dozen people remain here as most have relocated to nearby Magles El Shaab St. In the square, violence breaks out almost every night, he says, as youths clash with security forces. Each has its excuses: the army claim the youths are anarchists who want to disrupt the country, while the youths say hired thugs deliberately provoke the violence to discredit them.

When I visit Magles El Shaab St later, I find it populated by hundreds of tents and dozens of commemorative coffins honouring the dead. About a thousand people are camped out here, ranging from unemployed youngsters to middle class doctors and lawyers, and more apparently arrive each night. Their demands are the same as those left in Tahrir Square: that SCAF must step down and be held accountable for its actions. ‘We don’t want compensation, we just want trials,’ Kareem says. ‘If we see justice, we will go back to work. When we see our brothers die in cold blood, how can we go back?’

On 16 December, Muhammad says he arrived at the square to find the army throwing stones from the tops of buildings. After trying to give medical aid to victims, he was detained and tortured, treated with electric shocks and forced to drink mud. Overall, hundreds were arrested and about a dozen were killed, he says. He e-mails me pictures of his own beaten body, showing thick red lesions across his back where he was hit with sticks, batons and shoes. ‘They released people like doctors and accountants, but they held others so they would sign confessions saying they started this attack,’ he tells me on the phone. ‘But it’s not true. The army started this.’

Mohamed Omran, regional programme coordinator at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Cairo and human rights activist, confirms Muhammad’s concerns later that night. ‘SCAF is only concerned about one thing: how to keep the military ruling this country,’ he tells me. ‘The election is presented as the real will of the Egyptian people, but the political and legal climate is catastrophic. It is actually the will of SCAF and the religious movement.’

Political hot-potch

Not everyone is quite so pessimistic, however. During a petrifying car dash through Cairo, in which road markings and traffic lights prove little more than an irritating distraction from his attempts to kill us on the road, Arab Organization for Human Rights secretary general Alaa Shalaby tells me that SCAF are not as malicious as some people make out; they are simply incompetent. ‘They are stupid,’ he says, asking me to put on my seatbelt as we do a u-turn in front of a minibus. ‘But they are not the devil.’

Yet Shalaby still believes SCAF should step down, and said so publicly following the December unrest. Now Egypt has a democratically elected parliament, one might assume it is time for it to do so. Yet the military has vowed it will retain its executive role until the president takes office on 1 July and appoints a government. In the meantime, the parliament will assume legislative powers and be in charge of forming a 100-strong committee to write the Constitution, in line with principles devised by SCAF and its advisory council.

Whether the Islamists listen to SCAF is another matter. Both believe they have a mandate to govern, the former due to their election success and the latter due to their self-imposed role as guardians of the state. And looking anxiously on from the periphery are the liberals, most of whom trust neither SCAF nor the Islamists; and the youngsters, currently disenfranchised from the process they themselves initiated. ‘We built the pyramid upside down,’ says Shalaby ruefully. Like many others, he believes rewriting the Constitution at the start, as Tunisia is doing, would have prevented many of these problems. ‘Now it is a mess. What is the basis on which this parliament has been elected? What is the president doing? What is their legitimacy? You can’t start building the third wall without the first and second.’

‘Indeed, there is a state of confusion,’ Moussa concedes. But look at the positive, he urges: SCAF has agreed to step down; it is being advised by a credible civilian body; and a democratically elected parliament has been formed without serious incident.

So does he trust the Islamists to appoint a committee that reflects the population rather than their own religious agenda? He admits he has concerns. ‘But I don’t think the majority of the parliament can afford to run the risk to stability of having a lopsided and imbalanced committee,’ he adds. ‘It is in everybody’s interest, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, to have a committee that commands the approval of public opinion.’

And how about after the Constitution is written? Does he trust the Brotherhood to live up to its moderate rhetoric and support human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech?

Moussa is willing to give them ‘the benefit of the doubt’. ‘They are in parliament and the parliament is a public forum. So why should I now accuse them of anything? Let us see.’ If others are dissatisfied, he says, they can make a stand. ‘We need an active arena. The political space was so lazy, so matter-of-fact. But now there is a new challenge.’

Presidential hopefuls: what chance of success?

Several people have publicly announced their candidacy for the presidential elections in June, though the nominations are not currently expected to open until 15 April. IBA Global Insight gives its assessment of potential candidates and what chance they have of success.

Amr Moussa See main article.    High     
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh Secretary-general of the Arab Medical Union and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ahmad Mohamed Shafiq Former senior commander in the Egyptian Air Force and prime minister when the Mubarak regime fell, from January 2011 to March 2011. Rejected by the Tahrir Square protesters and forced to resign.
Mohammed Salim el-Awa Moderate Islamist intellectual and former secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, based in London.
Hazem Sallah Abu Ismail Egyptian lawyer, Islamic intellectual and long-standing member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is believed to be an extremist Salafi, though he does not declare it publicly.  Medium  
Ayman Nour Jailed in 2006 on forgery charges and can only run in the unlikely event his previous conviction is quashed. But as founder of the liberal El Ghad party and chairman of the Ghad El-Thawra party, he came runner-up to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. His imprisonment is believed to have been politically motivated, and he was released in 2009 on health grounds.
Hossam Khairallah Current army lieutenant general and former assistant chairman of the operations room of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services.
El-Sayyid el-Badawi Egyptian businessman and current president of the al-Wafd party.
Muhammad el-Nishai Physics professor and adviser of the Egyptian Ministry for Science and Technology. Educated in Germany and England, but has voiced his ‘hatred’ of Western cultural values. Low
Sameh Ashour President of the Egyptian Bar Association and the Democratic Arab Nasserite party, and former member of the People’s Assembly. Currently representing families of January 2011 martyrs in the trial of Mubarak and Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
Refaat el-Saeed President of the Leftist party Tagammu and a member of the Shura Council.
Ahmed Zewail Egyptian-American scientist who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Currently barred from running due to his dual-nationality, but there are rumours of a constitutional amendment that may change this.
Mamdouh Ramzi Coptic lawyer who is a member of the Free Social Constitutional Party.
Bothaina Kamel Television personality and pro-democracy activist.
Abdullah el-Ashaal Professor of international relations and law at the American University in Cairo, former aide to the Egyptian foreign minister and former ambassador.
Anis Degheidy Novelist and politician.
Tawfiq Okasha Egyptian talk show host.
Mohamed ElBaradei Former director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Dropped out of the race in January 2012 citing concerns about the democratic process, but only ever had a small chance of winning.

Islamic politics

A reluctance to pre-judge the Brotherhood is shared by the majority of civil rights activists I speak to in Cairo. Yet suspicions remain of both their political and religious ambitions. Because they have refrained from denouncing SCAF’s abuses, many believe they may have brokered some kind of deal with the army elite. At the least they may have formed, in the words of El Din Hassan, a convenient ‘marriage of interests’. ‘Both of them found after Mubarak stepped down that their joint enemy was the young generation movement, the liberal forces, the human rights movements,’ he says. ‘And those are the main victims of the last 11 months.’

For El Din Hassan, the Islamists’ aim is clear: to create a theocracy. At present only Article 2 in the Constitution addresses religion, stating that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and sharia is the foundation of its justice system. Yet there are fears that the FJP and other religious parties wish to take it further. ‘It would not be easy, but I think this is what they are working for,’ El Din Hassan says. ‘The Muslim Brotherhood are clever, they don’t disclose all their agenda. If you go back to their platform that was adopted in 2007, it is an agenda for having a theocratic state.’

He, like Negad El Borai, senior partner at Cairo human rights law firm United Group, and Rabha Fathy, chairperson of the Association of Egyptian Female Lawyers, believe there is no profound difference between moderate and fundamental Islamist parties. Religion, they argue, is conservative by nature. ‘Islamic parties have a history,’ says Fathy. ‘Women will have to wear a scarf and stay at home. They say they will respect women’s rights, but it is not true.’

As I attempt to navigate the streets back to my apartment after speaking to Fathy, I quickly find myself lost again. This time I am rescued by a friendly, avuncular fellow who speaks excellent English – and who, as perplexing serendipity would have it, turns out to be the former assistant foreign minister of Egypt, Hussein Haridy, who retired several years ago.

When asked his opinion of the Brotherhood, Haridy – a former army officer under Nasser – is predictably strident in his attack. ‘I have no doubt the Islamist parties will do their very best to maintain their power, whatever it takes,’ he says. ‘They do not understand democracy. They think it is like a football game, when you score points against the other side.’

The election is presented as the real will of the Egyptian people, but the political and legal climate is catastrophic. It is actually the will of SCAF and the religious movement

Mohamed Omran

Friedrich Naumann Foundation,Cairo;
human rights activist

Adel Elkady, an elderly doctor I meet in Magles El Shaab St, agrees. He is one of the few at the protest who views the Islamists, rather than SCAF, as enemy number one. Via years of community work, the Islamists successfully rallied the support of simple, illiterate people who knew no better, he says. ‘What is most annoying to me is that before the revolution, the Islamists were in hiding and it was the young people that started the revolution,’ he adds. ‘Now they are jumping over them and taking the fruits of what these people have achieved.’

Cloud in the sky

Though supportive of the ongoing protests, Elkady feels the unrest has now lost its impact. Instead of demonstrating, he believes the youngsters should be organising themselves and speaking to the people. The same is true of the liberals, who have failed to connect with the grassroots. ‘Instead of unifying, they choose to wear nice silk ties and talk to the media,’ he says. ‘The poor man doesn’t even see them.’

Moussa is clearly keen to avoid this pitfall, spending much of his time racing around the country engaging with small communities. The strategy seems to be paying off. Several people I speak to throughout the Sinai region give him their backing, and others know no other candidates. Walking the difficult line between tradition and progression, experience and vision, he is perhaps exactly the compromise Egypt needs during this sensitive stage of transition. Not everyone is convinced, however. ‘He is a clown,’ says Elkady. ‘Anyone who has lived for 60 years in a spoiled, corrupt system just wants something for himself. He has drunk this system and he is not going to vomit it.’ Muhammad too is against him – ‘he is old and a famous figure of the old regime’ – and Ahmed Fawzy, democracy development programme director at the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, sees him as one of the least favourable presidential options.

Others are more supportive. El Borai views him as ‘a very good man’, whereas El Din Hassan believes he is ‘good, but hasn’t yet developed a comprehensive concept that will help people to look to him as someone separate from the last government’.

To prove his disassociation from the abuses of the Mubarak era, Moussa’s top priority upon becoming president would be to tackle corruption and the laws that permit it. ‘I always say that corruption is not just a cloud in the sky, but is embedded and codified in laws. You find tens if not hundreds of laws that either allow or prohibit corruption. These are the loopholes.’

Where foreign policy is concerned, Moussa is a less divisive figure. Denouncing Israel is an easy win for any politician, and he scores well here – especially after Israeli forces ‘accidentally’ killed five Egyptian policemen during a border shoot-out with suspected Palestinian militants last August. However, Moussa has agreed to maintain the current peace process, and if he is worried about what course the Islamists might take, he is reluctant to show it. ‘Whoever is coming to power will be responsible,’ he says. ‘The parliament, the president, will have to help the peace process succeed.’

Whether Egypt as a whole succeeds is currently open to question. The Islamists are new but untested; SCAF and the old guard are tested but untrustworthy; the liberals are neither tested nor trusted. Where Moussa – one part opportunist Machiavellian to two parts enlightened veteran – fits into this craggy political landscape is yet to be determined. But whoever takes the reins can be clear on one thing: if the Egyptian people are unhappy, they will be sure to let them know.



Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the IBA and can be contacted at

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