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Politics

Egypt: Triumph and Tragedy

Exactly five years after Egypt’s democratic revolution triumphed, the country is once more ruled by a military office. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013 and is even nastier than his predecessors.

More than 600 Egyptians were sentenced to death last year, mostly in mass trials, and most of the cases involved people who had gone to pro-democracy protests.

When Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from the Egyptian presidency on Feb. 9, 2011, by nationwide non-violent demonstrations, there was an explosion of joy. It ended an unbroken 59 years when thinly disguised military dictators ruled the country and their cronies looted the economy.

Egypt’s democratic revolution followed closely in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution that triggered the “Arab Spring,” but it mattered far more because the country’s 90 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabs. Despite the disaster in Syria, we would still count the Arab Spring as a success if the Egyptian revolution had survived, but it was never going to be easy.

The protesters who drove the revolution in the cities were mostly young, well-educated and secular, but most Egyptians are rural, poorly educated and devout. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood had for decades been providing free social services to poor Egyptians. They were grateful and they were pious, so of course they voted for the Islamists.

The young revolutionaries should have understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win Egypt’s first free election. Most of them were horrified when “their” revolution actually ended up making the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Morsi had his own problems, including trying to balance his own party’s expectation of rapid Islamization with the reality that the army and much of the urban population were committed to a secular Egypt. He was not good at tightrope walking, so what he probably saw as reasonable compromises were viewed by his opponents as forcing political Islam down people’s throats.

If his opponents had also more political experience, they would have calculated the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to lose the next election. The Egyptian economy was a disaster, so in four years’ time they would be deeply unpopular.

Instead, in June 2013, just one year after Morsi became president, they launched mass demonstrations demanding a new election – and called on the army to support their cause. El-Sisi, whom Morsi had trustingly appointed as defense minister, led a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

El-Sisi took off his uniform and had himself elected president. The army is back in power, and the number of secular political activists in jail is now probably greater than the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime,” Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat told The Guardian last month. “People from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 60s.”

It is too soon to conclude that a modern democracy cannot thrive in the Arab world? Tunisia, after all, is still managing to hang on to its revolution, and the sheer number of people that Sisi has jailed suggests that his regime is far from secure. But nobody in Egypt is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s democratic revolution.