I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.
But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.
Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.
On the Brothers’ side, there is a settled conviction that the opposition wishes to take from them a legitimate electoral victory of one year ago. On the side of the opposition, there is an equally adamantine belief that the Brothers meant to so change the state and society that the various causes they represent — moderate Islam, liberalism, socialism, secular nationalism — would never again have a chance of, or even a share in, power.
On the street earlier this week, I met an old friend from my years spent in the communist and post-communist bloc. Al Stepan, a political scientist at New York’s Columbia University, is one of the world’s great experts on democratizing — that is, how authoritarian states get out of an authoritarian state, and what becomes of them. He’s also one of the world’s great travellers, and he’s been to the Middle East, and to Egypt, many times in “Arab Spring” years, and before.