Three years after the revolution that set the benchmark for the Arab Spring, Egypt is now coming full circle, and the promise of the mass movement with it.
On the first anniversary of Egypt’s momentous 18-day revolution, the country was still in a state of flux. A powerful military council remained in charge of a transitional government and the outcome of the revolution was unclear, but people were cautiously optimistic of what the future might hold if they kept pushing. By the second anniversary, the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, the country was polarized and in upheaval over the Islamists’ continued acquisition of authority and their desire to pursue their agenda at the expense of others. Today, on the third anniversary, Egypt is one small step away from coming full circle, back to the same style of military-backed dictatorship that endured before the revolution even took place.
What is unfolding in Egypt today is the absence of politics and a recipe for longterm instability. The intense desire for a return to normalcy, after three years of civil unrest, escalating violence, and a hemorrhaging economy, is pushing Egypt back into the arms of a security state ruled by the military. And the worse the situation gets, the stronger their grip on power will be.
The Muslim Brotherhood is far from blameless. The manner in which they used their time in power was disastrous and divisive. Morsi and the Brotherhood isolated a large portion of the Egyptian population, pursuing their agenda at the expense of others, and the popular indignation that emerged from that was real and consequential. They paid for their mistake by being ousted from power in a military coup d’etat. But the Brotherhood has remained unwilling to accept any responsibility for their actions, the first step in reemerging from the shadows, regrouping and reconciling themselves to a place at the table, if that is still possible (The new constitution ratified by public referendum last week outlaws parties “formed on the basis of religion.”)
Since the coup d’etat of 2013 against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood has been violently purged from the public space. It has been declared a terrorist organization, its leaders jailed, its media silenced, its membership criminalized, and its assets seized. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the outs, but it is Egypt as a whole that will suffer. The reason can be boiled down to a simple question: Now that the legitimate means of contesting power have been closed, will this make the Muslim Brotherhood, or political Islam for that matter, disappear?
The answer is no. And the unfortunate reality is that this is a sure-fire path the fractionalization and radicalization reminiscent of their past. Brotherhood members and supporters will henceforth look at the democratic process as rigged against them. And it is evident that repression and exclusion only cause political groups to resort to violence, feeling unable to influence the state and society through accepted, mainstream channels. The more marginalized and less capable of affecting politics legitimately, or even through waging an insurgency, the more likely they are to resort to terrorism. In particular, there is the young generation of disaffected Brotherhood supporters who must understandably feel jilted and angry. With nowhere legitimate to turn, they could become easy targets for extremist recruiters. Or, maybe worse for global instability, they could follow the direction of hordes of other young men and head to Syria for their first foray into transnational jihad. It will be like Afghanistan in the ‘80s but closer to home.
It is important to remember that all this has precedent in Egypt and beyond. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Muslim Brotherhood was illegal in Egypt and its leaders imprisoned. What arose were even more radical splinter groups that were the progenitors of radical Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda has its ideological roots in people like Said Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned, tortured and executed, but who in the process advocated the violent overthrow of government as the necessary means of establishing an Islamic order. This type of radicalization was a ghost that haunted Egypt well into the 1990s.
In that same decade, Algeria was plunged into years of bloody civil war after the military stepped in to prevent an Islamist party from democratically assuming power, using fear and instability to maintain their control. Today, Algeria is still ruled by an iron fist.
Two days go, four coordinated bombings rocked Egypt’s capital. And the day before, five policemen were gunned down at a checkpoint by assailants on a motorcycle. Subversive violence may eventually embroil Egypt, if that is not already the case. Yesterday, anti-government protesters were killed by police forces in the darkest anniversary of the revolution to date.
It is difficult to say if there is any turning back from this. The brightest hope of the Arab Spring now appears on its way to being lost.
The most important question that must be answered for the future of the Middle East and the Arab Spring is can political Islam co-exist with secular, liberal democracy? Or rather, can political Islamic parties function within a liberal democratic system? I think the answer is yes, if they can accept to be only a component in political life and recognize citizenship as something not tied to religion.
Turkey has been a long-time example. (Although recent developments with the AKP have put that into question.) Another example is Tunisia, which has just revised its own constitution; however, it has done so jointly, with all factions, including the Islamists.
This type of power sharing is the only cure to the divisive politics and authoritarianism that plagues the Middle East. But for now, it seems like a hard pill to swallow and one Egypt appears determined not to take. And with that, the true promise of the Arab Spring is almost gone.