Egypt on the brink – of what?

To the casual observer, the atmosphere in the streets of Cairo is ‘business as usual’. The tents are gone from Tahrir square, Fridays are dedicated to prayer rather than protest, and rage is more frequently directed at fellow road users than the ruling élite. Western media attention has largely moved on to more headline-worthy destinations. Compared with the cataclysmic scenes of last year, the current symptoms of Egypt’s ongoing passage to democracy – anti-military graffiti and posters of unphotogenic presidential candidates- seem tame. Egypt has achieved much of what its revolution set out to do.

After Hosni Mubarak was removed, the country has suspended its old constitution, seen a proliferation of independent media and conducted its first free and fair parliamentary elections. Indeed, many believe that the end is now in sight, for the election of the country’s President in May will supposedly mark the end of military rule and complete the transition to civilian government. But Egypt is not yet out of the woods. The decisions to be made in the coming months will define the new political order, and risks abound.

The growing influence of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which took almost half the seats in the recent parliamentary election, is cause for concern among Egypt’s liberals and minorities. The Brotherhood’s latest pluralistic rhetoric remains unconvincing. True, the leaders of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) went carol singing at Cairo Cathedral last Christmas, but went on to stuff the Constitutional Assembly with their supporters last month.

The Brotherhood denied using its parliamentary dominance to hijack the panel that will write Egypt’s new charter, but the numbers speak for themselves: 65 of the 100 seats went to Muslims, and a mere six apiece to women and Christians.

The Brotherhood’s opponents fear that the Islamists seek to strengthen Article II of the current constitution, which declares Egypt an Islamic state. 25 liberal members walked out of the Assembly’s first meeting at the end of March, pledging to write an alternative constitution ‘in collaboration with all the segments of society’. It remains to be seen whether their demands will be met.

Elsewhere, the Brotherhood’s determination to maximise its political leverage is even more overt. In the latest chapter of its showdown with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the FJP drafted a no-confidence motion against Egypt’s interim government, increasing pressure on the military to appoint a Cabinet led by the parliament’s majority; that is, themselves.

At the beginning of this month, the Brotherhood casually revealed via Facebook that they would be fielding their own candidate, deputy leader Khairat al-Shater, in the upcoming presidential race. In doing this, they reneged on a key and repeated promise of their campaign in the parliamentary election. Many believed that the controversy surrounding the group could soar no higher. That was until the announcement that not one but two Brotherhood contenders would be entering.

In a statement made on 7th April, one day before the registration deadline, the group said: “Because we are protecting the success of the revolution and all of its goals … we have decided to nominate [party leader] Mohammed Morsi as our back-up candidate for president.’ Though the final outcome of both these political manoeuvres is still unclear, the ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is not. One way or another they seek to dominate both the executive and the legislative wings of government in a new regime that they have designed.

Another big question mark hangs over Egypt’s military. The puppet civilian government established last March has made little attempt to hide the fact that the SCAF is still in charge. Though held up as heroes at the time of Mubarak’s overthrow, the military have since shown neither love for nor even understanding of democracy. Military trials have continued unabated, and dangerously vague emergency laws remain in place.

The police and soldiers responsible for the 800 dead and 11,000 wounded in January’s revolution have not even been investigated. Indeed, violence against protesters has continued throughout the year. The Maspero Massacre of October 2011 saw over two dozen protesters, predominantly Christian, killed by military and police forces. An originally peaceful sit-in outside the Cabinet building was met by army bullets, killing at least 14. Many remain doubtful that a new government will be able to limit the power of an institution that has dominated Egypt’s politics for over half a century and, according to some analysts, still controls up to 40% of the economy.

Beset by power-hungry fundamentalists and generals accustomed to dictatorship, Egypt’s fledgling democracy is far from secure. Economic stagnation and latent sectarian tensions could drag the country down even if democracy is established. Egypt’s revolution has come a long way. But it is far from over.