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AN UNFINISHED REVOLUTION

Egypt reached a historical milestone as the country marked the third anniversary of the Tahrir revolution on January 25 that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator who ruled Egypt for almost 30 years. The anniversary was marked by bomb blasts, rallies and killings as Muslim Brotherhood supporters clashed with security forces. Muslim Brotherhood supporters used the anniversary to signal renewed defiance of the military and the political transition, planned by the military-backed interim government. The Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization by the interim government that has also put the former president, Mohamed Morsi, in the dock for criminal offences. The Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a group affiliated to al Qaida, claimed responsibility for the bomb blasts and warned that more would follow. This group has been responsible for suicide bomb attacks and a savage campaign of violence against the security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.

The last three years have seen Egypt undergoing wrenching political upheavals that have left the country deeply polarized. Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood are clamouring for the defence minister and army chief, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, to run for president. He was the Egyptian strongman behind the overthrow of the Morsi-led Islamist government in June 2013. Crippled by months of continuous crackdowns against its members, the Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed in their hundreds. The crackdown has included arrests and the seizure of assets of pro-Brotherhood businesspersons. A rising tide of anger against the Brotherhood has aroused the Egyptian public and secular Egyptians, the latter group being critical of both the military and the Islamists. The secularists are currently caught between the resurgent military and the Islamists in retreat mode. The referendum on the new constitution held on January 14 and 15 had a low turnout of about 38 per cent, marginally more than the turnout in the referendum on the first constitution drafted under the Islamist government of Morsi. The Islamists had called for a boycott of this referendum.

Egypt, the most populous nation in West Asia, is caught in a hinge moment in its long and remarkable history. Egypt has never been a democracy in all its 6000 years. The so-called Arab Spring that began in Tunisia, sweeping away dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, seems to be turning a full circle, particularly in Egypt. The Egyptian military has been emboldened by public support, whereas the Islamists are aggrieved because their elected president has been overthrown and imprisoned. The Islamist government led by Morsi made many mistakes. Governance was marked by arrogance, incompetence, ignoring and ridiculing critics and failing to deal with the basic needs of an aroused citizenry. The propensity by both sides to resort to street action, strong-arm tactics to reverse adverse electoral decisions and the deep stateís partisan urge to intervene in politics, led to Morsiís overthrow and a repeat of what happened in the first uprising against Mubarak.

While Egypt grapples with its internal contradictions and polarized politics, important international and regional players have staked out positions either for or against the interim government or the Islamists. The United States of America had hedged its bets earlier by refusing to call Morsiís ouster a coup. Egypt is the second largest recipient of 1.5 billion dollars in annual US aid, ever since the Camp David Accords were signed in 1979, ushering in peace between Egypt and Israel. If the US called Morsiís ouster a coup, then it would trigger a statutory cut-off in US military and civilian aid. The recent moves by the Egyptian military have led to President Barack Obama issuing a statement condemning the interim government. But the US has hedged by slowing down delivery of military aid and cancelling military exercises. Humanitarian aid continues uninterrupted. The US position has angered both the Egyptian military and the Islamists and the former has shown signs of reaching out to Russia. Turkey and Qatar have strongly supported the Morsi government but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have poured in billions in aid to the military-backed interim government, signalling their distaste for the Islamists. Turkey has been the most vocal in condemning the ouster of the Morsi government and has even called for United Nations intervention. Ironically, all these countries are on the same side, backing the rebels in the Syrian civil war.

With the interim government promoting General el-Sisi as Field Marshall and the Supreme Military Council, clearing the General to stand for the presidential election, Egypt may end up being ruled by another military strongman. Egypt is heading for a quasi-democratic transition. What is undeniable is that Egypt needs stability and without it the West Asian region will remain in turmoil. In this complex interplay of internal politics, international and regional interests, India has maintained a position that essentially stems from the fact that India can do little to influence events in Egypt. Leveraging its cordial relations with Egypt, India had hosted President Morsi for a State visit and has regarded subsequent developments as Egyptís internal matter, signalling thereby that it is willing to do business with the government of the day.