Hope and dispair

The world was enthralled last December when democracy reared its head in the Middle East for the first time. It was like watching a film crescendo during January and February when the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were literally swept away by the full force of popular opinion. All the good news made us heady as events spread and we could see a new world, at the very tip of our fingers.

Then, events plateaued. We stopped watching with joy and descended into horror. The uprising in Libya quickly led to the siege of Misrata, and NATO was dragged into a new war in the Arab world. The protesters organised themselves into rebel armies and fought against Gaddafi’s ruthless men. In Syria protesters spent the summer and autumn being gunned down in their own cities, by their own people. Still, they ignored the tens of thousands of arrests, the torturing and the murder and they kept fighting for what they believed in. In August the rebels in Libya finally took Tripoli and Gaddafi’s forty-two-year-old regime fell. Joy bounced back into the Arab spring.

The Syrians are still protesting bravely against the Assad regime, which continues to attack them. The UN is imposing tighter and tighter sanctions, and Turkey – once President’s Assad’s most loyal friend – has turned its back. It seems that the end will come, but for the Syrians it may as well be centuries away.

Recently Tunisia held its first elections (see below) which heralded the dawn of democracy, especially as they were so successful. Again, progress in Tunisia spurred its Egyptian neighbours into action. Fed up with the tortoise-paced change in their country, Egyptians surged back to Tahrir Square, the home of the revolution, to demand the resignation of Field-Marshal Tantawi. The Field-Marshal heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power when President Mubarak was ousted. Many of its members were involved with the old regime, and there is wide-spread and legitimate scepticism about SCAF’s commitment to democracy. This scepticism increased when the army again opened fire on the new protesters. It looked as if things were going backwards.

The new violence coincided with the start of Egypt’s elections and there was a lot of panic that voting would be cancelled. Fortunately, the polling stationed opened as planned. But the process itself is complicated. People are voting for members of both the lower and upper houses of Egypt’s new Parliament, who will then be responsible for creating a new constitution. Fresh elections will apparently be held before June. This time, voting is being staged over several weeks. This is meant to give the judiciary a chance to regulate what is going on, but it also allows plenty of scope for some nasty fiddling.

The main problem is that the armed forces have become accustomed to special treatment, having been the main source of political power for decades, and are loathe to give it up. Whatever the outcome of these elections, normal politics will not exist in Egypt until the army is safely back in its barracks. And that is a long way off.