In a region currently blighted by autocrats, Egypt is increasingly looking like a bellwether in the battle between pro-democratic sentiment and hard Islamist power. And where that bellwether will go may end up defining history's judgment of not just Egypt's flirtation with democracy, but the entire Arab Spring.
Flash back to 2011, when the Arab Spring first erupted in North Africa. At the time, political prognosticators hungry for a sweeping narrative must have thought their dreams had come true. Here was a Middle Eastern nation controlled by an authoritarian dictator, whose people had abruptly decided they were tired of the old model of governance and wanted to engage in a new, undefined experiment in self-governance. It was a wholly unexpected moment, and one that prompted high degrees of both optimism and pessimism, depending on which observer one looked to.
Optimists - typically coming from the neoconservative school of thought championed by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol - insisted the Arab Spring would be a triumph of pro-democratic sentiment. Perhaps seeking vindication for the Bush-era brand of foreign policy and its insistence on spreading democracy as a moral imperative, this group argued that the Arab Spring would mark a moment akin to the fall of the Berlin wall, when all the dominos of Islamist governance would fall and the universal yearning for freedom would assert itself even in the largely autocratic and religiously intolerant societies of the Middle East. To quote Kristol himself:
Still, the Arab Spring deserves to be greeted with enthusiasm and support. It’s been clear at least since September 11, 2001, that decades of “stability” in the Middle East had produced a waste land of brutal authoritarianism, Islamic extremism, and corrosive anti-Americanism. President Bush set out to change that, but it seemed for a while that the Middle East would be impervious to change. Some sophisticates rationalized that the status quo was better than any likely alternative—after all, the thinking went, at least the Arab “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.”
No more. The Arab winter is over. The men and women of the Greater Middle East are no longer satisfied by “a little life.”
Now it’s of course possible that this will turn out to be a false spring. But surely it’s not beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to help reformers in the Arab world achieve mostly successful outcomes—in Iraq, where we need to be sure that we don’t fritter away the extraordinary gains that have been made in the last four years, and in Egypt and Tunisia.
Not all observers held such a rosy outlook, however. One of the more formidable pessimists, former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, warned against seeing the Arab Spring as a movement for genuine Western style democracy, when an explanation at least as compelling was that it might be simply an Islamist rebellion against Egypt's government. That government was, after all, secular in spite of its authoritarianism. As Bolton put it in an appearance on Fox News:
I don't think we have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy. You know the old saying, "one person, one vote, one time." The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care about democracy, if they get into power you're not going to have free and fair elections either.[...]
think there is a lot of opposition to the regime and a lot of opposition by the Muslim Brotherhood that is determined to bring down this secular military government, and install one of very harsh Sharia law, which would have enormous implications for the United States, for Israel, for other Arab governments in the region.
Others took an even more pessimistic tack. Glenn Beck, then a Fox News host, predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood, then a major Islamist opposition group in Egypt, was aiming to transform Egypt into the first of many states to form a new Islamist caliphate:
For better or worse, the Obama administration ended up siding with the Kristol approach, supporting Egypt's rebels in their battle against the Mubarak regime. Within months, that regime fell and the military was obliged to support the protesters in their quest for a free election.
Unfortunately, judging by the results of that election, the Boltons and Becks of the world appeared to have been right, as Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was swept into power promising to remake Egypt in the image of the Koran and turn Jerusalem into the "capital of the Caliphate." His period of governance has been marked by fanatical warnings to the U.N. that Egypt "will not tolerate insults to Islam," and promises to attempt to secure the release of infamous terrorists from US custody. And, of course, a steady aggrandizement of Morsi's own power that increasingly makes him look far more like a dictator than a democratically elected leader.
Given Morsi's status as an explicitly Islamist leader, this move on his part is perhaps depressingly unsurprising. After all, a regime that claims to be governing with God's mandate probably would not trouble itself with notions like consent of the governed. After all, in a fight between God and 50 percent plus one, any religious person can tell who would win. However, that particular calculus requires one to find the religion embraced by Morsi to be a persuasive bulwark against popular uprising, which in the case of most Middle Eastern countries would be a reasonable assumption.
However, in the case of Egypt, it may not be, which has led to some surprising results. Specifically, in spite of early suspicion on the part of Arab Spring skeptics that Egypt's pro-democratic uprisings were really Islamism wrapping itself in a different flag, it now appears that at least some of those protesters meant it. For instance, shortly after Morsi started granting himself increasingly broad emergency powers, protests began to erupt throughout Egypt all over again.
Naturally, Morsi dug in his heels, perhaps expecting the protests to go away. Instead, the protests escalated and turned violent, driving Morsi from his palace. Unlike with previous protests, the United States has declined to intervene in this case, which has prompted several protesters to make the (in retrospect) arguably quite ironic accusation that the United States is appeasing Islamists rather than standing with the people. Egypt's newspapers and media have gone black to protest Islamist domination of the government. It is almost as if the sides from the first debate over the Arab Spring have changed, with the people who first protested for democracy now warning against the government they inadvertently ushered in and once more asking for support from the West to get it right.
Will they be successful in getting that chance? The answer at this point is unclear. On the one hand, recent signs have been encouraging, with Morsi retreating from his earlier power grabs, even though this move has not satisfied those protesting his reign. Morsi's power may also be a more fragile phenomenon than it first appears, since (as the Brooking Institute's Shadi Hamid points out) the experience of Muslim Brotherhood leaders with power is weak:
What becomes increasingly apparent is that an Islamist movement in opposition and an Islamist party in power are two very different things. When Brotherhood officials were promising not to run for president in March 2011, they were still stuck in old patterns of behavior. In authoritarian settings, Islamists either cannot win or do not want to win elections, as winning threatens their organizational infrastructure (again, the matter of self-preservation). Most political parties do not double as states-within-states, with parallel networks of mosques, clinics, banks, businesses, day care centers, and Boy Scout troops. Islamist parties do. They must therefore tread carefully to avoid provoking the regime, as the costs of a crackdown on its social, educational, and preaching activities—effectively the Islamist lifeline—are severe.
Moreover, again to quote Hamid, the Muslim Brotherhood is afflicted with the problem of having to satisfy multiple different actors in order to retain its dominance, and thus lacks the ideological cohesion of their more militant rivals, the Salafists:
Indeed, Egypt’s revolution was a threat as much as it was an opportunity for a group that had grown accustomed to the unifying power of repression. Without a clear enemy—the Mubarak regime—maintaining organizational cohesion was becoming difficult.[...]
Despite their longstanding opposition to Western cultural and political influence, Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood need the United States and Europe more than they might like to admit.
The economy is one area where there is likely to be less friction between the U.S. and Egyptian Islamists. The Brotherhood, under El-Shater’s influence, has become an unabashed proponent of the powers of the free market. Its economic program can be best described as “Islamic Calvinism” combined with vague nods to safety nets and social justice. The Freedom and Justice Party program states its support for an “Egyptian economy built on the principle of economic freedom.” Elsewhere in the program, it affirms that “the private sector has a fundamental role to play in Egyptian economic life,” and that “values and morals should not be separated from economic development, as they are two sides of the same coin.”
On foreign policy, Morsi and the United States will inevitably disagree, to put it mildly. But this has much less to do with the Brotherhood’s Islamism than it does with the realities of a post-revolution Egypt. Democratization means the conduct of foreign policy can no longer be insulated from public opinion, as it had been for three decades.
So Morsi and his coalition may be vulnerable due to their many forthcoming challenges, but does that mean democracy is likely to flourish if they fall? There the prognosis looks rather grim, as James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation told TheBlaze in a phone interview.
"There was a real thirst for Democracy among the initial group of intellectuals that led the peaceful protests in Egypt, but unfortunately, Islamists have hijacked that movement and are ramming their own narrow restrictions on political activity through this constituent assembly," Phillips said. "I think a lot of the people that were protesting against Morsi really do want democracy, but unfortunately, they're outnumbered by the numbers of people that the Muslim brotherhood can mobilize against them."