After eleven demonstrators were killed outside the Ministry of Defence in Cairo early this month, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), expressed his astonishment that anybody might suspect the military of wanting to rig the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt.
State television, still controlled by supporters of the old regime, explained that the people who attacked the demonstrators were local residents who had grown sick of continued demonstrations. What could be more understandable than that? Nine of the eleven dead demonstrators were killed by head shots, a sure sign that amateurs were at work.
Oh, all right then, have it your way. The SCAF was indeed behind the murders – or at least, some people very close to the SCAF were. That’s why the soldiers and police watching all this did not intervene for six hours. So the question is: what did the senior military hope to achieve by doing this?
Partly, they were just being their usual clumsy, brutal selves. But they were also defending their policy of removing all the radicals from the race.
Most of the demonstrators in front of the Defence Ministry were protesting against the disqualification in mid-April of their presidential candidate, Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail of the Nour Party. He was a front-runner in the presidential race, two of the others being Khairat al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman – both of whom were disqualified too.
The result of the military’s machinations is that ten of the 27 candidates for the presidency have been removed, including all the more extreme ones with any serious prospect of winning the election. The front-runners among the remaining thirteen are two Islamic candidates and two secular ones, none of whom could be called extremists.
Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who took the place of the disqualified Khairat al-Shater, has all the charisma of a cabbage.
On the secular side, is Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ex-head of the Arab League, and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq. All moderates.
It’s impossible to predict who will win, because the election on 23-24 May will only produce two front-runners, who will then face a run-off contest on mid-June. What can be said with confidence is that the man the armed forces finally hand power over to at the end of June will not be a radical.
Disappointed? You wanted Egyptians to conduct a radical political experiment you would never want to see tried in your own country? Tough.
In 1998 there was a similar non-violent democratic revolution in another big Muslim country. The dictator who was overthrown, like Hosni Mubarak, was a former general who had ruled his country for more than twenty years. The first elected president was the leader of a prominent Islamic organisation, which frightened the country’s 10 percent Christian minority.
Islamic parties also gained a dominant position in the new parliament, and the more excitable observers predicted national disaster. However, Indonesia today is a stable democracy with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Indonesia is far from perfect. The military still has enough clout to ensure that “defence” spending stays high, and the police are more corrupt than ever. But the mainstream Islamic parties have stopped demanding Sharia law and Muslim-Christian violence has practically ended.
Nobody in Indonesia wants the former dictator Suharto back, and already almost nobody in Egypt wants Mubarak back. It will get better in Egypt, though more slowly than most Egyptians hope.
*Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist
whose articles are published in 45 countries.