The end of the Arab Spring in Egypt

Muhammad Mursi proved to be totally inept at leading the country, with a presidency marked by an authoritarian governance, an inability to pass any economic plan, bad management of public institutions, and an unrelenting effort to stifle all opposition. It wasn’t even a year into his term in office when, in response to this ham-fisted style of leadership, a new grassroots movement was started in Tahrir Square called Tamarrud (Rebellion) that gained a huge following, collecting millions of signatures. And so the stage was set for a confrontation that had been brewing between the president—who had won the elections legally by popular vote—and the popular will, with masses of people expressing their disappointment with the president they themselves had elected. This standoff resulted in Mursi being deposed by the army, which installed an interim government that sought to ground its legitimacy in the popular expression of dissent

The Arab Springs 201 against a legally elected president whose claim to power was now in question, precisely because he no longer enjoyed popular support, the only basis of his legitimacy (Gervasio and Teti 2013, 112-13).

The impasse posed a difficult constitutional problem. Democracy cannot be reduced to its electoral process: it also crucially turns on the ability of the state to guarantee the rights of citizens, mainly through the separation of powers. In this latter sense, Mursi’s presidency was no longer democratic. Equally undemocratic, however, was the ensuing military coup, for it was carried out to depose a legally elected president with a legitimate mandate based on the popular vote. Hence the predicament of a clash between a president who had turned antidemocratic and an antidemocratic military response to that development.

Civil unrest and chaos ensued, and in response the army cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, killing more than 1,000 demonstrators who had gathered in protest in Cairo on 14 August 2013. In view of this background, it was all but impossible to envision how Egypt might be able to resume its transition towards democracy. The August 14 massacre would persist as a dark stain that would make it difficult for the country to move forward, and the civil strife that followed, like the civil war that had broken out in Algeria in the 1990s, prefigured a devastating scenario for the future of Egypt. The role Egypt plays in the Middle East is huge, and the crisis the country faced in its transition towards democracy—a transition yet to be fully completed—is bound to have deep repercussions across the Arab world.

When Mursi was removed from office on 3 July 2013, some opposition figures in Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of the People called on the people of Tunisia to hold peaceful demonstrations to take down the government. But the Tunisian situation was profoundly different from the Egyptian one, for the government in Tunisia was not in the hands of a single Islamist party, as was the case in Egypt, but was led by a coalition that al-Nahda had formed with a secular party, namely, President Marzouki’s CPR. In addition, whereas in Tunisia the army had withdrawn from politics, in Egypt it had held the reins of power for six decades. The Tunisian constitution of 2014 will serve as a testing ground for the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, for it may set the foundation on which to forge a lasting compromise (grounded in the constitution itself) between the liberal and Islamist forces in the country (Selwan El Khoury 2013).

What would also weigh importantly on the democratic transition in the Arab countries was US policy, which had previously been ambiguous and even contradictory. The United States had accepted the Mursi presidency but did not put pressure on MursT to make overtures to other political and social forces, thereby giving free rein to Saudi Arabia in its intent to topple MursT. After his fall, the United States threw its support behind the military government, deciding not to call the ouster a coup d’etat, and even though the United States disavowed the military action that led to the August 14 massacre, it did so without depriving the military of its strong financial support, on the mistaken assumption that the United States itself could continue to exert influence on a fundamental ally in the Middle East. In reality, the 1.5 billion dollars the US Congress appropriated forthe new transitional government paled in comparison to the 8 billion that Saudi Arabia had already pledged for the generals, not to mention that there was speculation that the latter amount could rise to 12 billion with the contribution of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

The fallout from Egypt’s internal conflict spread across the Middle East and shaped it in profound ways, giving rise to two camps: on one side, coming out in support of the military government, were Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf; on the other side, voicing strong criticism against the military, were Turkey, Qatar, and Syria. As one commentator concluded at the time: “Certainly, the revolution has failed. Perhaps it took its own life. Perhaps one day it will be brought back to life. But the status quo has been broken. The rules of the old game no longer work” (Caracciolo 2013, 33; my translation).

The upshot is that the Middle East remains a deeply destabilized region: the civil war in Syria, the breakup of Iraq and Syria, and the birth and expansion of ISIS have completely redrawn the geopolitical map, with ripple effects being felt across the globe. In this state of affairs—save for the extraordinary exception of Tunisia—the march of the Arab Springs appears to have come to a full stop.

With the trial of former president Mursi in November 2013 and the protests that took place in October of the same year against the Tunisian government, the Islamist parties’ experience in government seems to have ended with no chance of its being revived.

As has been rightly observed, where al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood went wrong was in misunderstanding the nature of the popular consent they had gained. The votes they captured expressed the popular support which had been coalescing around parties that had not hesitated to fight the repression endured at the hands of the authoritarian governments in both Tunisia and Egypt. But that consent was not tantamount to supporting the project that al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood embarked on to Islamicize society (Guolo 2013, 29). Whereas in Egypt the failure of the Islamist parties brought the military back into the fold, in Tunisia it heralded the start a new democratic season.

The Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed in Egypt, while in Tunisia the al-Nahda-led government was replaced in December 2013 by a caretaker government led by Mahdi Jum'a (a former industry minister) that ran the country until the elections held in October 2014.

At the same time, in a debate that does not seem to be heading towards a resolution, the two Islamist parties have split over the path that needs to be taken going forward, with one side moving towards a new governing vision and the other calling for a return to ideological purity. At any rate, the inability to find any common ground seems to bespeak a crisis of political Islam (ibid).

The Arab Springs have so far had a successful outcome only in Tunisia. Everywhere else in the Middle East they seem to have come to a standstill. But the arc of revolution is long, and every such process proceeds by fits and starts.

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