I have seen reports in recent days of the death of democracy in Egypt (when was it ever alive — perhaps just barely?) I have seen reports that the Arab Spring is “over,” “dead” or “being reversed.”
All of these views seem rooted in a simple view of revolutions as sudden events that usher in change and then leave life to go on in the new mode. But it has never been that simple.
To take one of the simpler events that might seem a model: 1848 in France. In that year, demands for change targeted at an aging and increasingly disliked monarchy led — to everyone’s surprise — to large crowds massing in Paris and calling for change. Fearing for his safety, King Louis Philippe fled, leaving a thrilled and stunned nation to plan presidential elections. It seemed like democracy had finally come to France to stay.
Yet the ebullient Spring was soon replaced by conflict and autocracy. First, workers who wanted legislation to raise wages and subsidize food were shot down in the streets by the National Guard, which was trained and deployed to protect the property of the middle and upper classes. Then there were worker and peasant uprisings elsewhere in France as well. The winner of the first election for President — Louis Bonaparte, trading on the name of his famous uncle Napoleon — waited a couple of years then followed the strategy of his uncle, staging a coup to make himself emperor of France. As Napoleon III, he ruled France for over two decades, until he was overthrown by the Paris Commune in the wake of his disastrous defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.
What has happened in Egypt so far is not at all unusual for the trajectory of revolutions. We have seen popular uprisings in the capital lead the autocratic ruler to flee, only to be brought back and tried for crimes against the people. But the honeymoon period was followed by polarization and disappointment, with the Muslim Brotherhood, having won parliamentary and presidential elections, seeking to marginalize all other groups while failing to solve crucial economic problems. The polarization and ongoing economic crisis led to calls for order, and the military was only too glad to oblige, stepping in to depose the President, suspend the constitution, and create a state of emergency. This military counter-revolution, including the recent violent suppression of pro-Morsi demonstrators, is similar to the Kornilov counter revolution against the Bolsheviks, or the Huerta counter-revolution against Madero; the latter is probably a better analogy as Huerta managed to take the capital of Mexico.
What happens next? We know the script all too well. The deposition of Morsi and attacks on his supporters in Cairo will lead Islamists — the Brotherhood and perhaps the Salafists as well — to seek to mobilize their supporters in the countryside and other cities for another effort to take power. All-out civil war is likely, with Islamists seeking arms from Qatar or other supporters, and following in the footsteps of Islamist rebels in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Mali — there are many examples, and many experienced Islamist fighters to strategize and lead them.
The only thing that is truly surprising is that President Obama has reacted as if this is all just a minor adjustment or detour on the way to democracy, and that the Egyptian army should be softly chided for spilling the blood of hundreds or thousands, rather than called to account. It is a sad and serious embarrassment that Obama — our Nobel Peace Prize laureate — has not come out more strongly to condemn the attacks and suspend US financial support for the Egyptian military.
The Islamists are not innocents — they have attacked innocent Coptic Christians, and fought fiercely against the Egyptian military. But in the events of this week, the Egyptian military went on the offensive against peaceful demonstrators protesting the deposition of their lawfully elected president. We would not tolerate this anywhere else in the world. And the Muslims of the world will not appreciate the subtleties of international diplomacy and American caution. All they will see is the US President continuing to provide over a billion US dollars to the Egyptian military to purchase the equipment that was used to slaughter peaceful Islamists in the streets of Cairo. Al-Qaeda will have a field day recruiting additional fighters to attack the US and its allies all over the world.
It is hard to believe, following the enormous opportunities for the US to win mainstream support in the Islamic world during the move to topple dictators and grab for democracy, that the US could emerge in worse shape than ever in the region. Yet we have managed just that. In Egypt, the US was too late to desert Mubarak, too late to embrace democracy vs. the army, and too timid to challenge the military when they acted unconstitutionally to depose Morsi and suppress the Brotherhood and its supporters. In Syria, the US dithered and dithered, calling for Assad to go and doing nothing to support that goal. Instead, radical Jihadists and other powers have moved into Syria in force, leaving the US resented and powerless. In Libya, the US and NATO were hailed for their role in helping to depose Gadhafi, then lost their advantage by their carelessness in Benghazi and lack of follow-up to reshape Libya’s militias into a coherent security force. Today, across much of the Middle East and North Africa, the US has less leverage and influence, and is more deeply disliked, than before the Arab Spring.
As I have noted here before, it typically takes 10-12 years for a revolution to go through the stages of honeymoon, polarization, counter-revolutions, civil war, pacification, consolidation, and creation of a stable regime. The chances for democracy to follow rise to the degree that violence and civil war can be avoided, and decline to the degree that they occur. Tunisia may yet make the transition to democracy work. But in Syria and now in Egypt, a more typical drawn-out, violent course of revolution, ending in renewed autocracy, seems more likely. And sadly, the US will manage to be blamed for much that went wrong as well.