What are we to make of the military coup that the military refuses to call a coup in Egypt? I’m generally ready to cheer the departure of an unpopular putative theocrat, but quite suspicious of the military deposing elected officials while claiming to act for the good of
the people. Taken altogether, the past two years of the Arab Spring in Egypt delineate both the power of popular movements, and the severe constraints they face.
The diverse crowds that filled Tahrir Square just over two years ago, in January 2011, forced an autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, out of office after thirty years, but they didn’t do it on their own. When Mubarak left it was the military command, not a peoples’ council from the streets, that claimed control of the country, and it was the military that organized elections and forced an unpalatable choice upon the people. While the images from Tahrir Square may have fed the imaginations of reformers around the world–and in Zuccotti Park, it’s important to remember that the Occupiers weren’t waiting for the military to make decisions and take sides.
Thirteen months ago Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first elected president, defeating an opponent from Mubarak’s government, after the military had sifted and sorted a longer list of candidates for office. The Islamic Brotherhood, which supported Morsi, was one of the stronger and better organized forces in the streets during the revolutionary period–although they certainly didn’t represent the majority of those reformers demonstrating to remake Egypt. At the same time, Morsi’s election represented a victory for the religious movement. In office, President Morsi tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to balance conflicting pressures for reform and the interests of his religious party. His popularity, limited from the outset, unraveled quickly, and many of those who’d taken to the streets two years ago returned to Tahrir Square.
Witnessing disruption and violence in the streets–as Morsi’s supporters fought back–the military leadership again saw the need to intervene in would-be democratic politics. After President Morsi announced that he would not relinquish power or responsibility in response to the threats of the military, the armed forces seized power, put him under arrest, and commenced clearing his allies out of government, announcing a provisional ruler and elections some time in the future. For the moment, democratic reformers can cheer the military action, but maybe it’s only a wary half-cheer, a fist pump up not quite so high.
The throngs in Tahrir, both in 2011 and last week, are the spirit and vision of democracy,
but governance is harder and far more complicated; it’s easier to run a movement than a state. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has actively opposed secular government in Egypt since its founding in 1928, finally gained a chance to make policy as well as politics when President Morsi took office, but Morsi and his allies had been more adept in opposition. The government couldn’t deliver on the very high expectations it generated and the people who had taken to the streets were unwilling to settle for less and stay quiescent; the military was unwilling to force them to do so. Egypt is now in a reset mode, with the military firmly in control, the Muslim Brotherhood, understandably, less enthusiastic about working within the system, and democratic reformers willfully hoping for something better than they can realistically expect.
The Arab Spring eruptions of democratic dreamers inspired activists around the world, but two years later, there aren’t many unambiguous victories to claim. Most of those challenged survived, and the replacements of those who were toppled have still to prove themselves. Meanwhile, a terrible civil war continues in Syria.
Everyone wants something better, but there’s no easy transition from bravely marching in the streets to making effective and wise decisions about power, taxes, water, and so many other things, once in power.
Democracy is in the streets? Maybe, but it can’t be only in the streets and still be democracy.