This was arguably the country’s best year since its two modern-day revolutions.
Whatever one would like to say about Egypt 2014, it was by all accounts the best year the country has seen since the revolution of January 2011. The unseating of two sitting presidents following nationwide popular uprisings – in 2011 and 2013 — while bringing in much hope and aspirations, also made the last three years hugely chaotic and very bloody. The two rebellions killed thousands as the country swirled in a tempest, lurching violently in search of the anchor that would moor it to stability.
2014, however, was much more tranquil and orderly. The state seemed to have pulled itself out of a vortex and righted itself after nearly capsising.
The year started well enough with the drawing up of a new constitution, replacing the charter which came into effect under the Islamist regime of the former president Mohamed Morsi. Except for provisions granting more rights to women and minorities, the new constitution might not have been much different from its predecessors. But the new document was full of symbolism, for it represented a new era which broke clean with the Muslim Brotherhood which the majority of Egyptians wanted to distance themselves from following a totally failed experiment after the Islamists’ shambolic ruling of the country for one year.
The new constitution was also the first stage of the roadmap which the interim authorities had drawn up following the ouster of the Islamist government.
The second stage of the roadmap came relatively quickly on the heels of the first: the elections of a new president. In this two-man race, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi rode the massive popularity he had garnered as the slayer of the Brotherhood, winning the presidency by a landslide. Al-Sisi’s stunning margin of victory gave him a popular mandate which, when translated, meant he had the respect and trust of the nation.
This strong belief that the country was now in good hands and the faith the populace showed in the new president was expressly illustrated in the new Suez Canal project which the people themselves funded. The waterway will expand the existing Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea; allow ships to sail in both directions at the same time over much of the canal’s length; and cut waiting hours from 11 to three for most ships, thus doubling the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day. Revenues from the Suez Canal after the completion of the new canal will increase from $5 billion to $12.5 billion annually. Egyptians were thus encouraged to contribute to the canal’s funding by buying LE1,000 bonds. The bonds were snapped up and the LE60 billion target was reached in just 11 days.
The second Suez Canal brought the country’s patriotism out in its fullest glory. And there was more to be proud of when Cairo brokered the ceasefire that ended Israel’s 50-day summer blitz launched against Hamas in Gaza which killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians. It was only fitting that it was Egypt which helped make the deal. Cairo simply had what others did not: the ability to sit at one negotiating table with both Hamas and Israel. It also enjoyed a historic affinity with the Palestinian people and their cause, something that other aspirants to a truce, including Turkey, Qatar and even the US, did not have. And there was the fact that because Egypt had in the past waged war and made peace with Israel, it was able to use this experience to guide the Palestinians through a somewhat similar transition.
Egypt followed up the truce with another diplomatic feather in its cap: the holding in Cairo of an international conference on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Israeli bombardment. That raised $5.4 billion.
Egypt’s recognition as a key player in the region was further enhanced after Qatar threw its full weight behind Al-Sisi, the first time the Gulf state had officially recognised the Egyptian government after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood member Morsi was toppled a year earlier. Before that, Doha’s media had repeatedly called Morsi’s departure a military coup.
Qatar’s about-face and ringing endorsement of Al-Sisi came with some help from Gulf states Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE which recalled their ambassadors in March, accusing Doha of supporting the Brotherhood. When they agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Qatar in November, it was seen as time for Qatar and Egypt to mend fences as well. The closing down in Cairo of an affiliate station of Qatar’s TV Al-Jazeera, seen as hostile to Egypt, and Al-Sisi’s talks with a special envoy of the Qatari emir, the first time key figures from both countries came together since Al-Sisi took office, signalled a softening of Qatar’s position towards Egypt. The three Al Jazeera journalists jailed in June on charges of supporting the Brotherhood might also soon be released if their appeal holds up.
If nothing else can be predicted for 2015, a full and official rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar seems almost certain.
It was not all bed and roses for Egypt this year. The killing of 33 security personnel in Sinai, one of the deadliest assaults on the Egyptian military in decades, topped a list of almost non-stop acts of deadly violence by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Islamic State.
It was Morsi’s presidency and its subsequent fall that opened the gates wide to militants. Morsi allowed in a large number of Jihadists bent on turning Egypt into an Islamist fiefdom. When Morsi was forced out in 2013, there was a dramatic increase in violence by armed Islamists who sought revenge for his ouster.
The result was scores of policemen and soldiers killed in bombings and shootings this year. Most of the attacks have been in the Sinai Peninsula, however, there have also been repeated attacks in other places of Egypt, including in the capital. The attacks have become a frequent occurrence but nowhere remotely near the violence that has gripped Syria and Iraq.
The shadow of another former president, Hosni Mubarak, loomed large over the country. Egyptians were genuinely taken aback after a court in November dropped charges that Mubarak, his interior minister and six of his aides had killed or ordered the killing of hundreds of protesters when the 2011 revolution first erupted. It was a knockout verdict. The question asked by many was why the nation started a revolution in the first place if the man who galvanised the protesters was cleared of shooting them dead. For the trial was seen as an indictment of Mubarak, not just of the killing of protesters but on Mubarak’s 30-year rule of inefficiency and ineffectiveness as the country steadily went south in so many fields.
But the general sentiment appeared to be that even if he had been found guilty, an ailing 86-year-old kept in jail was not going to solve the problems of terrorism or the bread and butter issues of high unemployment and a higher cost of living.
By year’s end, the roadmap had been close to fulfilment after Al-Sisi ratified an electoral constituencies law, the final prerequisite for holding parliamentary elections, in the first quarter of 2015. That would conclude the country’s transitional roadmap, the first two steps of which — the passing of a new constitution and holding presidential elections — were both completed in 2014.
Egypt in 2014 was far steadier than the three years before it. Confusion was replaced with a semblance of clarity, a bit of order took the place of absolute chaos. Violence there was and flashpoints there were, but Tahrir, Qasr Al-Aini, Mohamed Mahmoud, Maspero, Port Said, Ittihadeya, Rabaa — the battlefield sites of so much death and carnage of the years past – became the past. There was more sense of purpose and resolve, that the country had finally found its way after having temporarily lost its way.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.