WASHINGTON – As we may recall, back in 2011 the enthusiastic Tahrir Square youth, armed with cell phones and twitter, in a matter of a few weeks caused the down fall of Hosni Mubarak, a former military man and for 30 years Egypt’s uncontested autocrat. The world admired those courageous young people who were opening the door to democracy and accountability, and cheered.
From general to general
Well, fast forward to today and we have Egypt ruled by another former general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now transformed into a civilian president, (just like Mubarak). And el-Sisi’s judiciary now reversed a guilty verdict for Mubarak, his sons and his entourage, on various charges ranging from homicide to corruption. So, the old (86) villain is no longer a villain. And the military still rules Egypt. Guess what, nothing changed.
Let me say this again. The February 2011 Tahrir Square Revolution culminated with the successful eviction from power of Hosni Mubarak, a military dictator, and it ended with the acquittal of the same military dictator thanks to a court system obviously working under orders issued by el-Sisi, the new military man turned into civilian president.
El-Sisi came into power after having kicked out the incompetent (but duly elected) president Mohammed Morsi, leader of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.
Back where we started
From a certain angle, this strange Egyptian tale looks almost like a farce. A big production, with a lot of sound and fury, that ends exactly where it started: a military dictatorship dressed up as a democracy.
Of course it is not a farce. It is in fact a sad story. Let’s not forget that many Egyptians died in the long 2011-2013 turmoil. And let’s not forget that the military took over mostly because of the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood government that most unwisely the Egyptians had chosen as a successor to Mubarak’s dictatorship.
The Muslim Brotherhood, led by president Mohamed Morsi, proved to be at the same time massively incompetent and anti-democratic. Hence bigger and bigger streets revolts against its rule, eventually followed by the military take over that ended with general el-Sisi becoming president and barring the Muslim Brotherhood, while arresting Morsi and all its national leaders.
Egypt not ready for democracy
So, what do we make of this story? Well, in hindsight, I admit that back in 2011 I was totally wrong in believing that the Arab Spring could propel Egypt into a new era of secular, accountable democracy. I grossly over estimated the strength of the westernized urban youth that had occupied Tahrir Square.
I did not realize that, given the opportunity to vote freely, most Egyptians would choose the backward looking Muslim Brotherhood, a political force bent on forcing on the whole country its own brand of strict religious orthodoxy.
From autocracy to chaos
In the end, as the skeptics had anticipated, getting rid of Mubarak created only chaos. The Muslim Brotherhood was powerful enough to win an election, but not strong enough to force the entire country to follow its antiquated religious precepts. At the same time, under their clumsy rule the Egyptian economy took a dive. Hence the popular rebellion, followed by the military take over.
No real democracy without a democratic ethos
I see only one important lesson here. The creation of a real democracy is a very complicated and most delicate enterprise that can succeed only if we assume the existence of a strong democratic ethos within any given society.
Democracy, of course, includes free elections. But that is only the beginning. In Egypt’s case, when the people had a chance to cast a vote, they elected a profoundly anti-democratic political force.
This is a bit like the Germans voting for Adolf Hitler in 1933 hoping that the Nazis would fix things. They certainly fixed things; but outside of the Weimar Republic parameters. Once asked to form a new government, they created a dictatorship.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood thought that the elections amounted to a mandate for imposing on the whole country its own religion based order. But the military did not buy this approach, and in the end it sided with the more secular Egyptians and got rid of president Morsi.
How will el-Sisi rule?
Will general, turned into president, el-Sisi rule like an enlightened technocrat, willing to enable the planting of the seeds of a future democracy? Will he favor some measure of dialogue with the more mature components of Egypt’s civil society? Will he allow some debate? Or is this going to be Mubarak 2.0?
Time will well. However, we know that Egypt is a mess, while the Arab World is torn apart. And today the most pressing issue is not how to create democracy, but how to fight Islamic radicals. Democracy will have to wait.
By now we know that a successful planting of the seeds of democracy requires a fertile soil consisting of calm, tolerance and some degree of unity and common sense.
So far, at least in Egypt, the conditions are not at all favorable. The careful cultivation that will produce this absolutely necessary fertile soil is at best a distant goal.