End of the Arab Spring?

If the opposition leaders in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army

If the opposition leaders in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on July 4. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is much chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring.” Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. But there was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now.

What is happening is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 per cent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Perhaps as few as half of those people actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society — but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was unwise.

The constitutional changes Morsi imposed, and his ruthless tactics for pushing them through, convinced many people in the secular opposition parties he was an extremist determined to force the whole body of Islamic law on Egyptians. He was actually trying to walk a fine line between public opinion and the demands of extremists in his own party but the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own.

The mass demonstrations that began on June 30 were explicitly intended to trigger a military takeover that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. They have succeeded, but the army doesn’t intend to stay in power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be excluded from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce. It will doubtless go through some leadership changes that bring a younger generation of leaders to power, and it will benefit from a sympathy vote from those who see the military intervention as illegitimate. It might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.