My friend, the late Hassan El Sawaf, was correct. When I spoke to him on the evening of Feb. 11, 2011, he was exuberant. After years of a lonely and personal struggle against Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the dictator was suddenly gone. A new era had begun. The prospects for democracy had never seemed so bright.
Freedom cast Hassan in a new light: Unburdened with the weight of Egypt, my normally serious and, at times, dour friend let himself laugh. Yet within 36 hours of Mubarak’s flight to Sharm el-Sheikh, Hassan’s mood had darkened with sudden disillusion. He distributed one of his many commentaries to a long list of friends and followers that read in part, “I believe a big conspiracy is being perpetrated against the people of Egypt. . . . [Egyptians ] are convinced the interim government will really keep its promises and steer them peacefully to the democracy everyone so valiantly fought for. Egypt will remain a military dictatorship indefinitely. How I wish I am wrong.”
Back in those heady days, it was easy to discount Hassan’s missive as revolutionary hangover. This was the fear instilled in someone with an intuitive understanding of the cynicism of Egyptian politics. Yet if there is any question of Hassan’s prescience, Wednesday’s attack on the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque should put that to rest. Egypt is as far away from the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square as it was in November 2010 when Mubarak staged perhaps the most fraudulent parliamentary election since they began in the late 1970s.
Now the “revolution” that really never was is over. Egyptians will go to sleep under a curfew and wake up under the hated Emergency Law that places the country under military rule. The government claims the measure is temporary — only for a month — but given Egypt’s current circumstances, that is not likely to be the case. Supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi have stepped up their mindless campaign against Egyptian Copts, and the violent repression of the opposition sit-ins will likely lead to even more radicalization. How long before the Muslim Brotherhood seeks redress through the force of arms? Spokesmen for the interim government argue that they have extended a hand to the Brothers to join the transition, but that they rejected it. Of course they did.
Not only was it a good political strategy to stay in the streets and discredit a political process born of a coup, but clearly, if the Brotherhood understood anything, they knew that the post-July 3 calls for “inclusion” in an interim government were not serious. They themselves had made similar insincere appeals for dialogue and inclusion of their opponents all the while working to institutionalize the Brotherhood’s power in a new political system. This is why they rammed through a contested draft constitution last December, and the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council attempted to write an electoral law that favored its aims.
Just as Egypt’s political system before the Jan. 25 uprising was rigged in favor of Mubarak and his constituents, the Brothers sought to stack the new order in their favor, and now the winners will build a political system that reflects their interests. This is neither surprising nor sui generis. In the United States, rules, regulations and laws are a function of the powerful, too. But in America, the capacity for change exists, whereas in Egypt, those institutions are absent. Although virtually all political actors have leveraged the language of political reform and espoused liberal ideas, they have nevertheless sought to wield power through exclusion. This has created an environment in which the losers do not process their grievances through elections, parliamentary debate, consensus-building and compromise — but through military intervention and street protests. This plays into the hands of those powerful groups embedded within the state who have worked to restore the old order almost from the time that Hosni Mubarak stepped down into ignominy two and a half years ago.
The roots of this desultory state of affairs are found in none other than Tahrir Square of January and February 2011. The elements of Egypt’s tribulations were all there even as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were thundering in unison “Dignity and freedom are the demands of all Egyptians!”: The leaderless instigators who brooked no question nor critique; the soccer thugs who served as the shock troops of the revolution; a military seeking to preserve its position in the post-Mubarak order; groups advancing liberal ideas in the service of nondemocratic agendas; and the callous, brazen sexual assaults.
The pathologies that seeped out of Tahrir produced strains in Egypt’s revolutionary promise from the start. The ardor of late January and February remained, but the sense of common purpose was lost in the seemingly endless Friday demonstrations, unrest in the labor sector, doctors’ strikes, lawyers’ strikes, demands for revolutionary justice and sectarian violence — all of which distracted everyone from the important work of building on the uprising to establish effective political organization with appealing, inclusive messages. Yet, across the political spectrum, leaders defaulted to their traditional corners rather than confront the sheer complexity of Egypt’s political, social and economic problems. Narrow interests triumphed at the expense of what was best for Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood claimed it was perfectly suited for the post-Mubarak moment. Its spokespeople and sympathizers claimed that it was a progressive force for democratic change, but it quickly emulated the ways and worldview of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The Brothers were in charge, but it was still Mubarak’s Egypt: Whoever ruled could do so without regard to anyone who might disagree.
Under the Brothers it was not, “one man, one vote, one time” as Islamophobes liked to warn, but rather the imposition of an electoral system that sought to make it “one man, one vote, every time.” Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s adversaries, both secular/civil forces and the remnants of the regime, pursued parallel strategies to achieve what they could not at the ballot boxes in late 2011 and 2012. At least the Tamarod campaign, which crystallized in the spring of this year, sought to situate its efforts in the constitution, which (at least in theory) provided for a referendum on the presidency. But when it became clear that Morsi had no intention of putting his performance to the test, a coup became the only viable option. This dovetailed with the counter-revolutionaries who sought a military intervention to restore the rightful order of Egyptian politics and put an end to what they clearly regarded as the aberration of the past 30 months.
The fact that the Brothers and their opponents offer a dizzying array of protests in the streets, or percentages of votes, to justify their actions as the “will of the Egyptian people” should confuse no one. The democratic aspirations and demands for the fall of the regime that were emblematic of Tahrir Square remain just that — seemingly distant ambitions that recent events have made unrealistic.
With Morsi’s departure, many Egyptians and observers have recently declared, “There is no going back.” This confidence in Egypt’s democratic development once seemed like hopeful bravado; now it’s simply tragic. As Hassan averred in what seemed like a lifetime ago — while people were still celebrating Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Tahrir Square — not all that much has actually changed.
Stephen A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is author of the boob “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.”