By late 2011, Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak was gone, overthrown by the will of his country’s people. Democratization and pluralism were birthing; the Arab Spring was ushering in a new era of personal liberty and the military was seen as protector of the nation. Egypt was reborn, the bulk of Western commentators and academics argued with ferocity. They could not bring themselves to accept that without any institutional checks and balances, these goals would be frustrated.
Realists, who asserted that democracy would not take root, were regarded as “neo-Orientalists” who pretended to understand the Middle East but actually understood nothing about the frustration and yearning of those who sought to control their own destiny.
Many of the so called “realists,” among whom I number myself, did in fact sympathize with these aspirations. In the Mubarak years, we all saw basic human rights ignored and human dignity effaced. When I served as Canada’s ambassador to Egypt from 1994 to 1998, many of Mr. Mubarak’s most profound intellectual critics were among my friends. I myself tried to steer Canada’s development assistance toward pluralism and empowerment.
Yet my friends and I were under few illusions that things would really change. Tragically, events have proven us right. Striving for change, even against seemingly insurmountable challenges, remains nevertheless honourable and worthy. But such effort, when it ignores social reality, leads to bad decision-making at sometimes horrific cost.
Contenting themselves with empty rhetoric about the evils of the military, most Western leaders may resonate with home audiences, but words alone are vacuous. Quiet and determined work among those few countries that have credibility in Egypt, the United States first and foremost, may have some effect in mitigating particularly egregious practices. But this will not change the basic dynamics that will determine Egypt’s future.
Egypt’s experience has been that of an authoritarian dictatorship, albeit with a sometimes progressive façade, permeating society at all levels, reflecting deeply rooted concepts of legitimacy and expectation. Democracy means freely contested elections, bound by the rule of law, in which the winning side assumes power in an ongoing continuum, with governments changing according to popular will. But democracy cannot exist without democrats.
Most often, elections in the Arab world are seen by empowered elites (militaries and others, including the Muslim Brotherhood) as opportunities to take and consolidate exclusive power. They manipulate the political process from the top down, disenfranchising opponents. These elites want a sort of “controlled democracy” with predetermined outcomes. But the Brotherhood and its Salafist cousins also embrace an ideology that tolerates little deviance, driven by their chosen interpretation of the deity’s will.
Mr. Mubarak kept rivalries bottled up, accommodating societal movements too powerful to suppress, including the Christian Coptic Church and the Brotherhood itself, providing they did not challenge the parameters he had laid down. But the current head of the Egyptian military, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, himself a religious man and Mr. Mubarak’s successor in all but name, will face an even more turbulent situation than Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Morsi did.
As the Brotherhood’s popularity began to wane under Mr. Morsi’s ragged direction, and as its own comportment became more and more arbitrary, the military began once again to see itself as the only alternative protecting the general good and, of course, its own considerable interests. It alone could provide the bulwark against chaos. The many-sided opposition to Mr. Morsi (students, progressives, the intelligentsia, economic elites, Copts, the residual supporters of the old regime) largely agreed. But they are soon likely to be at each other’s throats, so diverse are their methods and goals.
Egyptian society is becoming more polarized still in the wake of the provocation, violence, chaos and general pandemonium we are witnessing today. Islamists see themselves deprived of an election victory universally acknowledged to have been fair. They feel cheated. They will not forget it. They are banking on a war of attrition and have the organizational depth to make it happen.
The new regime will react forcefully and without hesitation against its enemies. If Gen. el-Sissi can assure a return to relative normalcy on the street, re-establish effective government and dig his country out of its financial hole, he may have a chance. Equally (if not more) probable is a repeat of the Algerian experience: a decade of incredible bloodletting between the military and the Islamists.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, is Paul Martin (Sr.) Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor.