“Better Mubarakism than Morsiism” was the underlying sentiment relied upon to fan the flames of discontent throughout the country, climaxing with the petition campaign organized by Tamarod that led to the June 30th demonstrations of millions, underpinned in the final days by a Sisi ultimatum from the armed forces that led to the detention and arrest of Morsi and the rise to political dominance of a menacing figure, General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has led a military coup that talks of compromise and inclusive democracy while acting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership, using lethal violence against those who peacefully refuse to fall into line. This military leadership is already responsible for the deliberate slaughter of Morsi loyalists in coldblooded tactics designed to terrorize the Muslim Brotherhood and warn the Egyptian people that further opposition will not be tolerated.
I am not suggesting that such a return to authoritarianism in this form is better for Egypt than the democracy established by Morsi, or favored by such secular liberals as Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this challenge directed at a freely elected democracy by a massive popular mobilization to be effective required an alliance with the coercive elements drawn from the deep state. Such a dependency relationship involved a Faustian Bargain, getting rid of the hated Morsi presidency, but doing so with an eyes closed acceptance of state terror: large-scale shooting of unarmed pro-Morsi demonstrators, double standards dramatized by General Sisi’s call to the anti-Morsi forces to give him a mandate to crush the Brotherhood by coming into the streets aggressively and massively. Egypt is well along a path that leads to demonic autocratic rule that will be needed to keep the Brotherhood from preventing the reestablishment of order. General Sisi’s coup will be written off as a failure if there continues to be substantial street challenges and bloody incidents, which would surely interfere with restoring the kind of economic stability that Egypt desperately needs in coming months if it is to escape the dire destiny of being ‘a failed state.’ The legitimating test for the Sisi coup is ‘order’ not ‘democracy,’ and so the authoritarian ethos prevails; yet if this means a continuing series of atrocities, it will surely lead to yet another crisis of legitimacy for the country likely to provoke yet another crisis of governability.
The controversial side of my argument is that Egypt currently lacks the political preconditions for the establishment of democracy, and in such circumstances, the premature attempt to democratize the political life of the country leads not only to disappointment, but to political regression. At this stage, Egypt will be fortunate if it can return to the relatively stable authoritarianism of the Mubarak dictatorship. Because of changed expectations, and the unlawful displacement of the Morsi leadership, it has now become respectable for the Tamarod, self-appointed guardians of the Tahrir Square revolution to support the ‘cleansing’ the Muslim Brotherhood. It is sad to take note of these noxious odors of fascism and genocide contaminating the political atmosphere in Egypt.
The very different experience in Iraq, too, suggests that ill-advised moves to install democracy can unleash polarization in a destructive form. Despite his crimes, polarization had been kept in check during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein. The attempted transition to democracy was deeply compromised by coinciding with the American occupation and proconsular rule. It produced sectarian polarization in such drastic forms that it will likely either lead to a new authoritarianism that is even more oppressive than what Saddam Hussein had imposed or resolved by a civil war in which the victor rules with an iron hand and the loser is relegated to the silent margins of Iraqi political life.
In the post-colonial world, it is up to the people of each country to shape their own destiny (realizing the ethos of self-determination), and outsiders should rarely interfere, however terrible the civil strife. Hopefully, the peoples of the Middle East will learn from these polarization experiences to be wary of entrusting the future of their country to the vagaries of majoritarian democracy, but also resistant to moves by politically displaced minorities to plot their return to power by a reliance on anti-democratic tactics, coalitions with the military, and the complicity of the deep state. There is no single template. Turkey, although threatened by polarization, has been able so far to contain its most dire threats to political democracy. Egypt has not been so lucky. For simplistic comparison, Turkey has had the benefits of a largely evolutionary process that allows for a democratic political culture to take hold at the societal and governmental levels. Egypt has, in contrast, experienced abrupt changes in a setting of widespread economic distress, and a form of polarization that denied all legitimacy to the antagonist, transforming the armed forces from foe to friend of the opposition because it was the enemy of their enemy. If this is the predictable outcome of moves to establish democracy, then authoritarian leadership may not be the worst of all possible worlds in every circumstance. It depends on context. In the Middle East, this may require a comparison of the risks of democratization with the costs of authoritarianism, and this may depend on the degree and nature of polarization.