Egypt's activists face an impossible choice

Forced to choose between an Islamist and an ex-general, optimism is fading among Egypt's young.

I could see the tears in her eyes.

"We must go back to the streets. The revolution did not happen for this."

In a visit to Cairo earlier this month, I heard direct the frustration of those whose courage and commitment helped end Egypt's dictatorship last year. The choice for Egyptians in this week's Presidential run-off between Mohammed Morsi, representing the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the Mubarak regime, was not one the young activist could stomach.

The veteran dissidents of the Mubarak years were more reflective. "It is not what I would have chosen, but it is progress. If you had told me five years ago that we would have had an election in Egypt where 90 per cent of the vote was divided between five candidates, I would not have believed you."

Later this week, the people of Egypt return to the polls for the second round in their presidential elections. Many have described the choice they face as impossible.

The first round eliminated, in a poll characterised by its closeness, the centrist candidates. In a febrile political environment, the last two weeks has seen the sentencing of former President Mubarak to a term of life imprisonment but the acquittal of his sons on corruption charges. The latter decision prompted a return of mass demonstrations to Tahrir Square. The frustrated youth who brought revolution to Egypt are deeply afraid that the revolution is in danger.

"Whatever happens, Shafiq will win," one voice warned me. Snatched conversations on the street with those in uniform, and there are many of them, testify to the continued importance of the army in Egyptian politics. They see their jobs, their status and their futures under threat. There is a profound, broadly-held scepticism that the military will ever allow their role to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Until they do, the capacity of Egypt to operate as a democratic society will be constrained to the point of impotence. Real power will stay with the army.

"My real fear is that the Brotherhood will cut a deal with the army," another experienced dissident voter told me. "The deal will be made before the election and the Brotherhood and the military, the two parties with organisation, will deliver it." The price will be limits to progress in the revolution - on military control, on women's rights, on real accountability.

There is little optimism in the air. The ambitions of Tahrir Square, so heady in the spring of 2011, seem distant now.  But In a nascent democracy, there is much to be done. New political parties, with distinct ideologies, need to develop and to learn to organise. Those I spoke to in the Freedom and Justice Party, which relies heavily on the organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, are deeply suspicious of international co-operation of competitor parties.

What are they afraid of? Democracy requires different parties and new political activists are eager to learn from those with a democratic tradition. The sooner those with power learn this, the quicker confidence in Egyptian democracy will build.

A new generation has formed a new government in Egypt. But governmental power in Egypt still has limits: the army allows government to operate and government operates with the army's consent. This fundamental obstacle to full democracy in Egypt remains. It will not be overcome by this week's election. But, if full and stable democracy is to come to Egypt, the army, its budget and its power must be placed under democratic control.

That ambition is one which many Egyptians I spoke to share still. They know that is an ambition that will be difficult to realise and one that will not come quickly. But many who spent years in prison under President Mubarak see that steps forward have been taken. More steps are needed, but the political prisoners of the past are still political activists today. They are impressively determined that the journey to democracy will continue - beyond the election this week which gives them a choice they find difficult to bear.

An Egyptian protester holds a crossed out portrait of presidential candidate and former premier Ahmed Shafiq. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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