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A climate of change

The spring proved fickle, but Arabs are still yearning for it, says Max Rodenbeck
Jul 13th 2013 |From the print edition


ON FRIDAY AFTERNOONS two years ago, the picture on Arab television screens
developed a curious habit of multiplying. It would split in two, then three, then more and
more lookalike frames. At the end of noon prayers, as mosques emptied in sequence
across four time zones, news teams in city after city beamed up dramatic imagery that
was strikingly similar. The same vast, joyous, flag-waving crowds surged into the Pearl
Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, thronged the Tahrir Squares of Sana’a,
the Yemeni capital, and of Egypt’s great metropolis, Cairo, and swarmed the beachfront
at Benghazi in Libya and the leafy avenues of Tunis. Everyone was chanting the same
refrain: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

There were many such days in the spring of 2011, as if a hidden conductor had
orchestrated a pan-Arab symphony of protest, and the uprising did bring momentous
change. Before it began to stir in December 2010, the world’s 350m Arabs had seemed
oddly immune to the democracy bug that had infected most corners of the globe.
Whether republics or monarchies, nearly all of the world’s 19 predominantly Arabic-
speaking states had solidified into similar political forms, their varied constitutional
veneers flimsy disguises for strongman rule. The people, including legions of often
jobless youths, had no say in how things were run.

In breathtakingly short order the decades-old dictatorships of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and
Yemen collapsed. As popular pressure mounted, other Arab governments announced
political reforms, more public spending and other concessions to appease their restless
people. A region-wide burst of youthful energy that reminded Westerners of their own
liberating social upheaval of the 1960s suggested a new sense of empowerment. The
“Arab exception”—the apparent inability of these neo-patriarchal states to move towards
political norms shared by most of the world—seemed to have been overcome.
Those heady, hopeful days have long passed. The mood across the Arab world now is
gloomy. Some say sourly that the Arab spring has turned into an Islamist winter. They
fear that after losing power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and kindred groups with
strong religious leanings that did well in the Arab spring will may become even more
combative. Many suspect that the Islamists have every intention of following the path set
by Iran’s revolution three decades ago, and that to such people democracy is merely a
vehicle for legitimising a new form of authoritarianism: “One man, one vote, one time.”

Yet Arab Islamists also lament the way things have evolved. Now in power in many
countries after decades in opposition, they are learning hard lessons. Translating
religious ideals into practical policies is tough when Islamists themselves are far from
agreed over what those ideals should be, and tougher still when resistance to Islamist
aims, whether from entrenched bureaucracies or from secular-minded elites, proves stiff
and unrelenting. Even so, the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim
Brotherhood president, by a combination of popular rejection and military muscle came
as a shock.

Other critics worry less about the Islamists’ intentions or the danger of political
polarisation than about the messy, prolonged political transitions now in progress, which
so far have done nothing to alleviate the social problems that spawned the upheavals in
the first place. Nowhere, as yet, has the right to vote or greater freedom to speak
translated into markedly better government, more jobs or brighter short-term prospects.
No Arab country has emerged as a model for others to follow. Despair seems to be
winning over hope. Countries such as Tunisia and Egypt could remain turbulent for years
to come, whoever is in government there.

And those newly democratic countries have done relatively well. Elsewhere, the first
flowerings of protest in the spring of 2011 brought not freedom but more tyranny and
vicious civil strife. When the police in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain failed to stamp
out a raucous pro-democracy mutiny, the ruling family panicked. It invited nearby Sunni
monarchs to send in troops, which lead to scores of deaths and hundreds of arrests. The
result is a grim stand-off between the country’s embittered two-thirds majority of Shia
Muslims and a wary Sunni minority. Not only has Bahrain failed to progress, it has turned
the clock back to where it was after a previous bout of sectarian tensions in the 1980s.
Even that outcome pales next to the carnage in Syria. What has unfolded is far beyond
the worst imaginings of the protesters who dared to challenge the government with
peaceful marches two years ago. The death toll so far has now passed 100,000; more
than a quarter of Syria’s 21m people have been displaced; half its main cities are in ruins;
and, predicts the UN, half its population will be in need of food aid by the end of this year.
What began as an inclusive popular uprising has turned into a fratricidal war with no end
in sight. The only conceivable scenarios for the conflict’s outcome are dismally bleak.

A victory for the regime of Bashar Assad would perpetuate a cruel dictatorship in a
physically devastated, psychologically traumatised and politically isolated land. Victory for
his foes could unleash horrific sectarian vengeance against Syria’s multiple minorities by
the long-oppressed and now enraged 70% Sunni majority. Should the current stalemate
persist, the dissolution of Syria into hostile enclaves could become permanent, leading to
strife as prolonged as the civil war that ravaged neighbouring Lebanon for 15 years.

There could be worse to come. Syria’s agony has already spilled across its borders, with
nearly two million refugees now sheltering in neighbouring countries. Trouble has moved
the other way, too. The men, money and materiel flowing into Syria are increasingly
helping to turn this into a proxy war pitting Mr Assad’s allies—Iran, Iraq, Russia and
Hizbullah (the Lebanese Shia group close to Iran)—against the Arab and Western
countries that back his enemies. These, ominously, include extreme jihadist factions,
among them al-Qaeda, whose ambitions extend far beyond imposing harsh religious
laws. They seek to “cleanse” Syria and the region as a whole of anything they see as
alien to their narrow interpretation of Islam.

The widening of the strife underlines the fragility of Syria’s borders. These “lines in the
sand”, drawn a century ago by dominant European powers with scant concern for
sentiments on the ground, may in future be redrawn in blood. Already, Kurdish groups in
Syria’s north-east have carved out something akin to an autonomous zone linked, albeit
tenuously for now, to the Kurdish part of neighbouring Iraq and Kurds in Turkey. Already,
too, the increasingly open hostility between Syrian Sunnis and Shias has rekindled
sectarian passions in Iraq, Lebanon and as far afield as Yemen, bringing closer the
possibility of a direct clash between the Shia superpower, Iran, and big Sunni states such
as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The 1,400-year-old great fitna (schism) between Islam’s
main branches, given to periodic eruptions, rumbles ominously again. In the words of an
Arab saying, “Fitnasleeps; God’s curse upon him who wakens it.”

The end of the beginning


Syria’s tragedy, and to a lesser extent the problems caused by the transition elsewhere,
have other perverse effects. Regimes that have so far resisted reforms use them as
excuses for sticking with their old ways. The oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, in particular,
have tightened restrictions on freedom of speech. Most of their citizens are comfortably
off and have yet to voice dissent on any scale, but unease stirs below the tranquil
surface.
In short, the scorecard for the Arab spring so far looks overwhelmingly negative. But this
special report will argue that such an assessment is premature. Rather than having
reached a sorry end-point, the wave of change may have only just begun. Judging by
experience elsewhere, such transitions take not months but years, even decades.

Further unrest and almost certainly further bloodshed lie in store. But this may well be
unavoidable in a part of the world where bewildering social change, including extremely
rapid population growth and urbanisation, for so long went woefully unmatched by any
evolution in politics. Debate on such crucial issues as the relationship between state and
religion, central authority and local demands, and individual and collective rights could
not be indefinitely stifled. Something had to give.
Has it failed?

Despite the chaos, the blood and the democratic setbacks, this is a long process. Do not give
up hope
Jul 13th 2013 |From the print edition

ROUGHLY two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single
country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy. The countries
that were more hopeful—Tunisia, Libya and Yemen—have been struggling. A chaotic
experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected
president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

No wonder some have come to think the Arab spring is doomed. The Middle East, they
argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions,
so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The
other is that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which—it is argued—cannot
accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab
spring had never happened at all.

That view is at best premature, at worst wrong. Democratic transitions are often violent
and lengthy. The worst consequences of the Arab spring—in Libya initially, in Syria now—
are dreadful. Yet as our special report argues, most Arabs do not want to turn the clock
back.
Putting the cart before the camel
Those who say that the Arab spring has failed ignore the long winter before, and its
impact on people’s lives. In 1960 Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy
and GDP per head. Today they inhabit different worlds. Although many more Egyptians
now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a
fifth of South Korea’s. Poverty and stunting from malnutrition are far too common. The
Muslim Brotherhood’s brief and incompetent government did nothing to reverse this, but
Egypt’s deeper problems were aggravated by the strongmen who preceded them. And
many other Arab countries fared no better.

This matters, because, given the Arab spring’s uneven progress, many say the answer is
authoritarian modernisation: an Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping to
keep order and make the economy grow. Unlike South-East Asians, the Arabs can boast
no philosopher-king who has willingly nurtured democracy as his economy has
flourished. Instead, the dictator’s brothers and the first lady’s cousins get all the best
businesses. And the despots—always wary of stirring up the masses—have tended to
duck the big challenges of reform, such as gradually removing the energy subsidies that
in Egypt alone swallow 8% of GDP. Even now the oil-rich monarchies are trying to buy
peace; but as an educated and disenfranchised youth sniffs freedom, the old way of
doing things looks ever more impossible, unless, as in Syria, the ruler is prepared to shed
vast amounts of blood to stay in charge. Some of the more go-ahead Arab monarchies,
for example in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, are groping towards constitutional systems
that give their subjects a bigger say.

Fine, some will reply, but Arab democracy merely leads to rule by the Islamists, who are
no more capable of reform than the strongmen, and thanks to the intolerance of political
Islam, deeply undemocratic. Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brother evicted earlier this
month by the generals at the apparent behest of many millions of Egyptians in the street,
was democratically elected, yet did his best to flout the norms of democracy during his
short stint as president. Many secular Arabs and their friends in the West now argue that
because Islamists tend to regard their rule as God-given, they will never accept that a
proper democracy must include checks, including independent courts, a free press,
devolved powers and a pluralistic constitution to protect minorities.

This too, though, is wrong. Outside the Arab world, Islamists—in Malaysia and Indonesia,
say—have shown that they can learn the habit of democracy. In Turkey too, the protests
against the autocratic but elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have more in
common with Brazil than the Arab spring. Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic
today than it was when the army lurked in the background.

The problem, then, is with Arab Islamists. That is hardly surprising. They have been
schooled by decades of repression, which their movements survived only by being
conspiratorial and organised. Their core supporters are a sizeable minority in most Arab
countries. They cannot be ignored, and must instead be absorbed into the mainstream.

That is why Egypt’s coup is so tragic. Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power,
they might have learned the tolerance and pragmatism needed for running a country.
Instead, their suspicions about democratic politics have been confirmed. Now it is up to
Tunisia, the first of the Arab countries to throw off the yoke of autocracy, to show that
Arab Islamists can run countries decently. It might just do that: it is on its way to getting a
constitution that could serve as the basis of a decent, inclusive democracy. If the rest of
the Arab world moves in that direction, it will take many years to do so.
That would not be surprising, for political change is a long game. Hindsight tends to
smooth over the messy bits of history. The transition from communism, for instance,
looks easy in retrospect. Yet three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was
overrun by criminal mafias; extremist politicians were prominent in Poland, Slovakia and
the Baltics; the Balkans were about to degenerate into war and there was fighting in
Georgia. Even now, most people in the old Soviet bloc live under repressive regimes—
yet few want to go back.

Don’t hold back the tide


The Arab spring was always better described as an awakening: the real revolution is not
so much in the street as in the mind. The internet, social media, satellite television and
the thirst for education—among Arab women as much as men—cannot co-exist with the
deadening dictatorships of old. Egyptians, among others, are learning that democracy is
neither just a question of elections nor the ability to bring millions of protesters onto the
street. Getting there was always bound to be messy, even bloody. The journey may take
decades. But it is still welcome.

Revolutionary potential

How many more to go?

Change now seems less out of reach


Jul 13th 2013 |From the print edition

SIX MONTHS BEFORE Egypt’s revolution in January 2011 this paper suggested that the
seemingly most placid of the Arab countries was about to be shaken to its foundations.
Even after three decades of stuffy sameness under the continuous rule of Hosni
Mubarak, that much seemed obvious. Egypt’s very placidity made it easy to spot the
converging factors that pointed to impending collapse.

Predictions are far more hazardous in times of flux such as now, but European history
may offer some lessons. In 1848 the citizens of Sicily rose up to rid their island of a hated
tyrant. Having overpowered his troops, they proclaimed a constitution and elected a
parliament. This was the first in a succession of uprisings, some 50 in all, that rattled
rulers across the continent. The Sicilian republic survived for only 16 months, and within
two years all the other revolts were similarly crushed. Only in Denmark did the
revolutionaries achieve a measure of success: the king conceded demands for a
constitutional monarchy.

Yet the embers of revolution smouldered on. Within a generation of 1848 the whole of
Europe had been radically transformed. Ethnic rather than dynastic boundaries defined
new nations such as Germany and Italy. Slavery and serfdom were abolished. Hereditary
rule retreated before liberal democracy.

A century later, in May 1968, an eruption of youthful anger in Paris launched a wave of
popular protest. In the end nothing very big happened immediately afterwards, aside from
the arrival of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia and the widespread adoption of blue jeans,
rock music and notions of personal freedom. Yet in subsequent years dictatorships
toppled, first across southern Europe in the 1970s, then in South America in the 1980s
and finally across the crumbling Soviet empire later that decade.

Arabs, too, have lived through waves of change before. The previous one started in
March 1949 when a group of army officers staged a coup against the elected president of
Syria, Shukri Kouatly, a hero in the struggle for independence from France. Three years
later Egyptian soldiers shunted King Farouk aside. King Faisal of Iraq was deposed more
bloodily in 1958. Imam Muhammad al Badr of Yemen was overthrown in 1962 and King
Idris of Libya in 1969.

By the 1970s this wave had pretty much passed. The Arab political map settled into a
varied patchwork of kingdoms, emirates, civilian dictatorships and army-ruled republics,
some grindingly poor and others exceedingly rich, some aggressively secularist and
others, such as Saudi Arabia, conservative and puritanical.

Spot the similarities


Even so, those 19 Arab states had much in common. Most had parliaments, but nearly all
of these were the rubber-stamp kind. Power rested in the hands of ruling families or
parties dominated by narrow clans. The state, often bolstered by oil income that
ballooned in the 1973 energy crisis, proposed and disposed at will. Zealous ministries of
propaganda, education and culture made sure the state was respected. Brutal police and
compliant courts made sure it was feared. Multiple security organisations that spied on
each other made sure it was coup-proof.

Such was the Arab norm for three decades: states modelled on patriarchal families that
rewarded loyalty with handouts. Some rulers were benign and well loved, others venal or
cruel, but common rituals and touchstones, such as memories of anti-colonial struggles,
served to suggest a shared legitimacy. Every year at Arab summit meetings, leaders
gathered to pay homage to Arab unity, Muslim solidarity and the sacred cause of
Palestine.

This wider family was never a very happy one. The hundred-year-long struggle over
Palestine has been one festering sore. Yet in terms of casualties suffered, the Arab-
Israeli conflict is far from the worst trauma that Arabs have had to endure. Civil wars in
Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq have each claimed many more lives. Syria, with grim
certainty, soon will. Egypt lost more soldiers when it intervened in Yemen in the early
1960s, in support of republicans against Saudi-backed monarchists, than in the sands of
Sinai during the six-day war against Israel in 1967. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s left
vast numbers of people dead, perhaps half a million, possibly over a million; no one
knows for sure.

Ironically, Palestinians have often been victims of internal Arab squabbles. Jordan
chased out many of them in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
in the 1990s and Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. The Assad regime in Syria,
which long proclaimed itself the chief champion of resistance to Israel, is busy hounding
Palestinians even now. Tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, squeezing
in among their countrymen already crowded into squalid refugee camps there because
Lebanon will not let them own property.

The importance of Arab rulers’ failure to honour promises over Palestine should not be
exaggerated. Three-quarters of Arab countries share no border with the troublesome
Jewish state. Yet that failure is symptomatic of a much wider shortcoming. Simply put,
Arab regimes have failed to live up to the unspoken bargains meant to underpin their
rule.

This was not always true. Until the mid-1980s most Arab countries’ economies performed
as well as the rest of the world. Living standards rose dramatically. Life expectancy and
literacy soared. Limits to freedom seemed a price worth paying for building nations within
borders that were mostly legacies of European imperial rule (see article).
A bargain built on oil
Yet this success rested on shaky foundations. Windfall oil revenues in the 1970s
encouraged Arab oil exporters to indulge their people with mammoth infrastructure
projects and cradle-to-grave welfare benefits. When the oil price suffered a prolonged
slump, their economies stalled. Youths in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria
were shocked by the prospect of ending up poorer than their parents and being unable to
set up homes of their own. Youth riots in Algeria in 1988, a precursor to the civil war
starting in 1992, were a premonition of troubles elsewhere. So was a wave of youthful
Islamist activism in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, the crushing of which caused some to
embrace the radical jihadism preached by an exiled Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden.

Poorer Arab countries fared no better. Most Arab republics had embraced central
planning, state capitalism and import substitution. By the 1980s their inefficient industries
and sclerotic bureaucracies were creaking. The managerial classes in places such as
Egypt and Syria, perfunctorily educated in the factory-like schools built to accommodate
rapidly expanding cohorts of children, fell ever further behind their peers elsewhere.

By the start of the 21st century the proportion of Arab workers employed by the state was
close to double the world average, and far higher still in oil-rich countries. Even so, Arab
youth unemployment was twice the world average. Governments struggled to sustain
blanket subsidies on food and energy, legacies of paternalism which their secret police
advised them should not be touched for fear of sparking riots.

In response, rulers who had hitherto shunned business-friendly policies hastily adopted
them. This was easier for the energy-rich because oil prices conveniently rose. For the
rest the sudden shift to neo-liberalism brought gains, too, in the shape of faster growth
rates and big investment inflows. But new wealth accrued disproportionately to those with
links to ruling clans. The swaggering families of the rulers and their cronies bagged prime
concessions. The old bargain with the people was increasingly ignored.

The Arab revolutions have so far toppled five governments (two of them in Egypt),
shaken two more to the bone and badly rattled most others
More importantly, those people had changed. By 2010 nearly two-thirds of Arabs were
living in cities. Among those under 30, three-quarters were literate and increasingly
connected to the world via satellite television and the internet. Yet around 40% of the
Arab population were still subsisting on less than $2.75 a day, spending more than half
their income on food. This was an explosive mix, and the fuse to set it off had already
been lit.

In September 2000 a group of 99 intellectuals in Damascus, the Syrian capital, presented


a petition to their country’s new president. It was a time of hope. The dictator for the
previous three decades, Hafez Assad, had died. His son and heir, Bashar, projected a
gentler image. The petitioners humbly asked for an end to the emergency laws in force
since 1963, a pardon for political dissidents and rights of free assembly and speech.

At first Mr Assad appeared to listen. He released political prisoners and invited exiles to
return. But the Damascus spring quickly clouded over. Within a few years nearly all the
signatories to the petition were in prison or exile. Like other Arab leaders at the time who
faced similar pressures, Mr Assad judged that the group of activists was small and had
limited support among the wider population.

He was right to assume that ordinary people were wary of troublemakers, but failed to
notice that the activists’ ideas and the example of their sacrifice were making an impact.
Arab regimes in general were also slow to become aware of the spread of new methods
of dissent. Some of these were inspired by Palestinian uprisings against Israeli
occupation. Events in Lebanon, which ironically may have been instigated by Mr Assad
himself, also provided an example. After a car bombing in 2005 that killed a popular
politician, Rafik Hariri, a quarter of Lebanon’s 4m people spontaneously poured onto the
streets to hold vast peaceful demonstrations. Many of them blamed the murder on Syria,
which had long meddled in its neighbour’s affairs. The uprising forced Lebanon’s pro-
Syrian government to resign and pushed out Syrian “peacekeeping” troops left over from
Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

The increasingly restless populations across the Arab world just needed a few sparks of
their own to set them off, and these were not long in coming. When they started to fly in
Tunisia in late 2010, satellite TV, the internet and mobile phones with cameras were on
hand to magnify the conflagration—rather as, back in 1848, the new telegraph, railways
and daily newspapers with their illustrated supplements had multiplied the impact of the
uprisings across Europe.

The Arab revolutions have so far toppled five governments (two of them in Egypt),
shaken two more to the bone and badly rattled most others. Even quiescent, prosperous
Kuwait and Oman have seen mass demonstrations in support of reform. For the moment,
however, the wave mostly seems to have run out of momentum. Some governments
have managed to deal with the discontent by peaceful means. Muhammad VI, the king of
Morocco, nipped protests in the bud at the height of the Arab spring in 2011 by adopting
a new constitution that limits some of his powers, and by appointing a mildly Islamist
prime minister.

The rulers of Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Jordan have all resorted to tried-and-true methods
of co-option and intimidation, which so far seem to have worked. In the first three cases,
recent experience of grisly civil wars at home has spoilt the public’s appetite for conflict.
Jordanians, for their part, have been front-row spectators to tragedies in neighbouring
countries. Swamped with refugees from both Iraq and Syria, they are keenly aware that
however impatient for change, their own people remain dangerously split between native
East Bankers and a majority descended from Palestinian refugees, as well as between
Islamists and secular critics.
The hereditary rulers of the Gulf stand out as different. Their small populations and
immense and still growing wealth mean they can “buy a holiday from politics”, in the
words of Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. Saudi
Arabia announced a $120 billion increase in social spending in March 2011. The extra
funds for housing subsidies, scholarships, pensions and temporary unemployment
benefit were a stopgap measure, but nonetheless welcome for that in a country where,
shockingly, a quarter of all families fall below the national poverty line.

None of the six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council has made any serious
move towards political reform or democracy. Instead they have all cracked down more
heavily on dissent, jailing critics, constraining media and introducing tough new laws on
public gatherings. Their ministries of information work hard to present the changes in
Egypt and Tunisia as disastrous and to depict Syria as an apocalypse.

Yet if history is any guide, waves like the Arab spring cannot be turned back. Paul Salem,
the director of Beirut’s Carnegie Centre, a think-tank, believes the region has already
undergone a paradigm shift. “A massive transformation in political consciousness has
been seared into minds with sacrifice and heroism,” he says. “No one now doubts that
what the Arab public wants is elected, constitutional government.” In the past two years
some 124m Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Libyans have reached for that aim. If you
include Iraq, with 33.8m people, which held proper elections in 2005, nearly half of all
Arabs have accepted that only democracy can bestow legitimacy.
Egypt’s tragedy

Muhammad Morsi was incompetent, but his ouster should be cause for regret, not celebration
Jul 6th 2013 |From the print edition

WHEN Muhammad Morsi was elected president of Egypt a year ago, this newspaper
was wary. As fervent supporters of liberal democracy, we are uncomfortable with the
belief of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi’s party, that politics are subsidiary to religion,
and are downright hostile to the attitudes towards women and minorities that pervade the
Islamist movement. We would have preferred the secularists who led Egypt’s revolution
to have won. Yet we recognised that Mr Morsi’s 52% of the vote—a stronger
endorsement than Barack Obama got five months later—gave him the right to rule. And,
most of all, we were delighted that after 30 years of dictatorship, Egypt was on its way to
becoming a democracy.

That is why we regard the events of the past few days with trepidation. Mr Morsi’s ouster
by a combination of street power and soldiers sets a dreadful precedent for the region.
The army, which is in part responsible for the situation, must start Egypt on the path
towards new elections as swiftly as possible, or the prospects for the country will be
bleak.

Post-Morsem
Mr Morsi’s rule started unravelling when crowds massed in the streets of Egypt’s cities on
June 30th, the first anniversary of his time in power. The protests turned violent; the
Brotherhood’s headquarters were burned; 48 people have died. On July 1st, the army
gave Mr Morsi 48 hours to resolve his dispute with his opponents. Mr Morsi responded by
defending his legitimacy and refusing to step down. On July 3rd, the chief of army staff,
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, announced that the constitution had been suspended. Mr
Morsi was taken into military custody.

Most of the blame for the disaster that has befallen Egyptian democracy lies with Mr
Morsi. The very size of the protests—some estimates claim that as many as 14m took to
the streets—shows that his opponents were not a small bunch of discontents. Most of the
country seems to have turned against him. One reason for that is his incompetence. He
did nothing to rescue the economy from looming collapse. The Egyptian pound and
foreign exchange reserves have both dwindled, inflation is rising and unemployment
among those under 24 is more than 40%. The IMF has despaired of agreeing on a big
loan that would have opened the way to others. In the broiling summer heat, electricity
cuts have become maddeningly frequent. Queues for petrol have lengthened. Farmers
are often not being paid for their wheat. Crime has soared—the murder rate has tripled
since the revolution.

The Brothers’ failure to include a wide range of views in its first government was even
more foolish. Egypt, at the best of times, is hard to govern because society is polarised.
Secular-minded and better-educated Egyptians generally want the country to be dragged
into a modern, pluralistic and outward-looking world. A more conservative and religious
stratum looks to political Islam rather than socialism or capitalism as the answer to
centuries of injustice, inequality and corruption. In addition, Egypt has a large and
nervous minority of Christians, perhaps a tenth of the populace of 84m, along with a
much smaller minority of Shia Muslims, both of whom have been rattled by an Islamist
government.

Instead of trying to build up the independent institutions—the courts, the media, a neutral
civil service, army and police—that check the power of government in mature
democracies, Mr Morsi did his best to undermine them. He legislated through a senate
that was elected by only 10% of the voters. He made false, inept or cowardly choices at
every turn, finagling constitutional issues, pushing fellow Brothers into key appointments
and feeding the secularists’ fears that his brethren were determined, by hook or by crook,
to Islamise every aspect of society. He stayed silent when bigots and thugs threatened
and attacked religious minorities. He allowed foreigners working for advocacy groups
promoting human rights and democracy to be hounded, prosecuted and convicted (most
of them in absentia) on patently false charges.

That so many Egyptians should wish to get rid of Mr Morsi is therefore entirely
understandable. That they have succeeded in doing so could well turn out to be a
disaster, and not just for Egypt.

The precedent that Mr Morsi’s ouster sets for other shaky democracies is a terrible one. It
will encourage the disaffected to try to eject governments not by voting them out but by
disrupting their rule. It will create an incentive for oppositions all over the Arab world to
pursue their agendas on the streets, not in parliaments. It thus will reduce the chance of
peace and prosperity across the region.

It also sends a dreadful message to Islamists everywhere. The conclusion they will draw
from events in Egypt is that, if they win power in elections, their opponents will use non-
democratic means to oust them. So if they are allowed to come to office, they will very
likely do their damnedest to cement their power by fair means or foul. Crush your
opponents could well be their motto.

How to make it less bad


That damage is done, and cannot be undone. But there are better, and worse, ways for
the story to unfold. If the army holds on to power, then Egypt will be back where it was
before Hosni Mubarak was ousted—but without the hope that prevails before revolution
has been tried and has failed. If the army announces a timetable for elections and sticks
to it, then Egypt has a chance. The soldiers will need to make credible promises to the
Islamists that if they win (which, given their performance over the past year, the Brothers
are unlikely to) they will be allowed to take power. Persuading them of that will be hard:
holding an election quickly would help.

Egypt’s army played a pivotal role in the revolution, standing by while people power
pushed Mr Mubarak out. It still has the trust of many Egyptians, who are still inclined to
turn towards it in times of crisis. If the generals are to repay that trust, they must get the
country back on the path towards democracy as swiftly as possible.