Egypt follows the revolution script — and a turn for the worse

When in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak was driven from power, many commentators said this is NOT a revolution.  Using the moniker the “Arab Spring” or the “Arab Uprisings” the commentariat said “This time is different!”   This is a popular democratic eruption, a non-violent expulsion of an isolated, disliked dictator to be followed by a smooth transition to a more open and inclusive government.

I demurred — for I had seen this script before.  This was the opening stages of a true revolution, for a dictator had been forced out of power by popular unrest.  All that remained to see was whether the next steps would take their usual course as well:  a honeymoon period of joy and unity, then the fracturing of the revolutionary alliances and a struggle for power.

That is indeed what happened, and we are now at stage three of the revolutionary process: when the struggle for power results in the overthrow of the initial post-revolutionary regime, precisely because it is not inclusive enough, not effective enough, and not able to make progress dealing with all the massive and unmanageable problems that usually arise when a revolutionary situation has occurred.

So it is no surprise that Morsi did not last.  It is much like the situation in Mexico in 1911, when no sooner had the dictator Porfirio Diaz fled and the popularly elected President Francisco Madero taken office, than former allies started maneuvering to take Madero down.  Within a few months, disorders had grown and the army stepped in and deposed Madero in a counter-revolutionary coup.

In Mexico, that step unleashed a decade of civil war.  I think it unlikely that Egypt will go that route — although that is possible.  It could also go the route of Russia in 1917, when the Kerensky regime, which succeeded to power when the Tsar resigned, similarly lost support and was overthrown, but this time by the more radical Bolsheviks who had to fight off a conservative military counter-revolution.

So will Egypt lurch right or lurch left — that is, will it see a renewal of conservative Army rule under the remnants of the NDP (Mubarak’s old party), or will it see yet another power seizure or electoral victory by the Islamists, but this time by the even more extreme Islamists of the al-Nour party?

It is too early to tell, as many actors are now involved in Egypt — not only the major parties and their popular supporters, but also Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who seek to stabilize Egypt as a strong Sunni state to counter the growing influence of Iran.

Yet it is certain that Morsi’s overthrow by a military coup (for that is what happened) is bad news for the progress of Egypt’s revolution.  It shows clearly that the street still has the power to push the revolution into chaos, and that the army stands ready to intervene in response.  Next time, however, the street may be dominated by Islamists led by the Salafis, and the army may not prevail.

This coup also shows Islamists and their supporters that democracy and elections are only good for the liberal secular forces, and that if democracy throws up Islamic leaders they army will throw them out again.  So if it seems that democracy and Islam don’t mix, that will be much the worse for democracy throughout the Middle East.

Certainly Turkey is watching closely.  Events in Egypt will not doubt heighten the paranoia of Prime Minister Erdogan, who spent much of his career fighting a conservative military that sought to block or depose his Islamic Party’s electoral victories.  In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is rallying his supporters by showcasing Egypt as an example of the chaos that follows when authoritarian leaders are deposed and Islamists have their way.

Across north Africa, Islamist parties and militias will grow paranoid, and adopt more extreme policies to weaken their enemies and try to ensure their own power.

In short, do not be fooled into thinking Egypt’s army has solved anything, or brought stability.  They have raised the stakes and sharpened the conflict, making an inclusive government impossible.  They are trying to rule a country in which over ten million people voted for the leader the army has just deposed.  And they have given the Islamists a martyr, who went down fighting to keep his Party’s position strong and refusing to compromise.

So the stage is set for further rounds of conflict, with an intensification of all Islamic parties’ distrust of democracy and efforts to gain power.  Should Islamists regain power, they now will work hard to make sure they never again lose it.  As so often in revolutions, hopes for democracy will be a distant echo of the opening days, but will fade fast as the real struggle for power gets underway.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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