Egypt v Greece: which elections are more important?
Which elections are more important this weekend? Egypt’s, or those in Greece? Depends where you live, of course, but a friend in the office set me the challenge of answering that question and I rashly promised I would have a go.
Egypt is home to some 90 million people. The biggest population in the Arab world is traditionally seen as the barometer for political change in the Middle East. Democracy has eluded the Egyptians for thousands of years, not that the rest of us can boast that we were anywhere near Pharaohnic sophistication when the pyramids were being built.
Greece, with a population of 12m, is of course the birthplace of democracy but also one of the smallest countries in Europe. It is, nevertheless, the tail wagging the dog of the entire eurozone project, and probably exercising more influence relative to its size than at any time since about 400 BC. My father was born and raised in Egypt, until he was forced to flee Colonel Nasser’s revolution; I studied ancient Greek for eight long and sometimes painful years. I love reporting from both countries and my affection for both places, though laced with large dollops of frustration, is enduring and deep.
In Greece, the Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras is threatening to cancel Greece’s EU-IMF austerity programme if he wins enough votes to form a coalition with smaller leftist factions.
Mr Tsipras simply does not believe the counter-threats from Germany and elsewhere – that Greece will be forced out of the Euro if its sun-soaked people refuse to swallow the current Teutonic prescription of bitter fiscal medicine.
“What is sure is that nobody would dare to take such a big responsibility to blow sky high the second biggest currency in the world,” was how Mr Tsipras put it to me in a recent interview. But that, of course, is the risk.
Mr Tsipras knows that as prime minister he will not be able to pay Greek pensions and public sector salaries next month, should external funding be cut off; but his response is to answer blackmail with blackmail.
“Our advantage is that if the funds stop coming in, we will have to stop paying our creditors,” he said. “That would result in a domino effect in the financial markets all over Europe and create a devastating storm all over Europe. Both sides have nuclear weapons in their hands.”
As is frequently pointed out, the Greeks invented the words “catastrophe” and “crisis”. I think we should take Mr Tsipras’s threats seriously. So this election, Greece’s third in the last few years, feels like make or break time for the eurozone.
Even if Mr Tsipras does not win, he may well be right in saying that no government can run Greece and survive the wrath of its people without a serious re-negotiation of the bailout terms.
Now to Egypt. If Greeks are feeling sorry for themselves, and many are, millions of Egyptians are a lot poorer by comparison and a lot longer suffering too. Their election is less economically consequential to those of us living in Europe, but arguably more historic in absolute terms.
Historic, because this is the first presidential election in which Egyptians get to choose between not one but two candidates. The Islamist candidate, Mohamed Mursi, is from the Muslim Brotherhood which was banned for decades.
Attending one of his rallies, as I did this week, felt like the latest remarkable phase in the “coming out” party for an Islamist movement which won Egypt’s first freely contested parliamentary elections earlier this year.
In the last few days, that ” coming”out party has looked in danger of being closed down; parliament has been shut and those first elections annulled, with Egypt’s military rulers and judges from the ancien regime launching a pre-emptive legal assault on the seeming inevitability of Islamist power.
I am not as gloomy as many observers are. The presidential election is going ahead, with Islamist voters perhaps more likely to cast their ballots precisely because of crude attempts to circumscribe their leaders.
Tahrir Square has not erupted in fury. Not yet, anyway. A few hundred people were in the square on Friday. The revolution may be on siesta time, because it is searingly hot and Egyptians are tired and divided over what the revolution was about, beyond the downfall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Egypt’s revolution isn’t over; but the transition to civilian rule is undeniably slow. So that’s why these elections for now seem like a staging post in a process which will take several years; street violence will come and go, but the direction of travel seems to me irreversible. Though I am well aware that millions of Egyptians, and the generals pulling the strings, could be about to prove me wrong.
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