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Pure Onsense

Revolution Undone

Scott Zuke

(2/2014) This time three years ago the world's television screens were tuned in to watch the birth of democracy in the home of one of history's oldest civilizations. On January 25, 2011, millions of Egyptians took to the streets, many gathering in Cairo's now-famous Tahrir Square, to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, their authoritarian leader who oppressed them under emergency law for 30 years. With a national median age of 25 years, most citizens had never known life without Mubarak. Sparked by the successful overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia only days earlier, and fueled by widespread anger over economic hardship and lack of freedom, the massive protest succeeded in forcing Mubarak to step down on February 11.

As we know now, this inspiring moment was only the beginning of Egypt's long, violent, and much less inspirational transition. The ongoing protests, brutal crackdowns by security forces, the presidential election of Mohamed Morsi, and the "democratic coup" that followed a year later, are beautifully chronicled from the eyes of Tahrir's youth activists in the Oscar nominated documentary, The Square. The film covers events up until this past August, which coincidentally was the turning point where optimism for Egypt's revolution began to decline.

Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents millions of Egyptians, has been deemed a terrorist organization, allowing its assets to be seized and its members arrested and abused. This was the final nail in the coffin for any hope of a more inclusive political landscape. Three years ago, the protesters in Tahrir chanted that Egypt's Muslims, Christians, and secularists were united as "One Hand," but today many of those same youth are outspoken supporters of the exclusion and repression of the Brotherhood. Their desire for democracy, it seems, only goes so far.

There is a growing consensus among Middle East experts that, despite everything that has happened in the past three years, no revolution has actually occurred. One reason they argue this is that essentially the same forces are in power as before. Egypt's national bureaucracy, state-run media, police and intelligence services, and judicial branch, collectively known as the "Deep State," remained intact after Mubarak's fall, and still follow the direction of the military leadership, which also has not changed.

A second reason to doubt the revolution is that the Muslim Brotherhood, after holding the presidency for one year, has reverted back to the illegal status it bore for the previous 60 years. Egypt was the birthplace of the conflict between secular Arab nationalism and Islamism that has played out in several Middle East countries, and the two movements continue to be locked in a zero sum game. Morsi may have been democratically elected, but he did not rule the country democratically; he made many mistakes and severely overplayed his hand. The coup that brought him down may have been justified and popularly supported, but it set an anti-democratic precedent of its own and opened the door for violent repression of a large portion of the population. At a conference last September, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested drawing wisdom from the Lebanese civil war: "It took 14 years, but it was ended on one principle Ė no victor, no vanquished. Everyone has to be included. But it also ended on the principle that the minority has to be overrepresented to reassure them." Egypt has done everything in its power to do precisely the opposite.

A final reason to think the revolution never happened is that Egypt looks poised to appoint a new strongman ruler in the next few months--basically Mubarak by another name. General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the unelected leader of the country since Morsi was forced out of office, is unrivaled in influence, and would likely win if he chooses to run for the presidency. During the national referendum on Egypt's constitution in January, street vendors sold paper masks bearing Sisi's face, just one example of the cult of personality that has sprung up around him. In the state-run media, praise for Sisi has sometimes gone over the top, sounding more like North Korea-style propaganda. Consider this excerpt from a piece in Al-Ahram last October: "His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sunís rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within...There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side."

As inevitable as a new military dictatorship is beginning to feel, it's doubtful it will be able to restore normalcy, much less enact democratic reforms. As one expert recently told the Washington Post, "Egypt might just be ungovernable."

If the military leadership is uninterested in establishing democracy and unable to make effective economic reforms, it will stick with what it knows best: enforcing security. Its strategy thus far has not only included the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, but also on any sources of dissent, including journalists. The new constitution passed in January solidifies the military's political power, putting it above civilian oversight. It received an astounding approval rate of over 98%, but those who opposed it simply didn't turn out to vote. Those who did show up were encouraged (or in several documented cases, coerced) into voting 'Yes.'

Normally I am skeptical of those who ask whether a country is "ready for democracy," but in Egypt's case it was the people themselves who seem to have answered no, at least for now. The stakes in the confrontation between secular nationalists and Islamists are simply too high, and it will be a long time before there's enough trust between them to allow for cooperation again. Where there is no room for compromise, democracy cannot work. The legacy of the January 25 Revolution may turn out to be "One Hand" after all, but not the way they meant it; rather than describing the Egyptian people united, it will succinctly explain where political power is located in post-revolution Egypt.

Read other article by Scott Zuke