Revolutions are prolonged struggles to transform existing political, social and economic relationships, but also battles for power and its lasting justification. They involve many different types of actors and methods of mass mobilisation. And they go through different periods and calendars marked by momentous events. On all these counts Egypt has been undergoing a revolution since January 2011 when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular revolt. Another major episode in this drama was marked on Wednesday, August 14th, when the army moved brutally against the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins, killing and wounding thousands, proclaiming a state of emergency and arresting thousands more.
This is not the end of the Egyptian revolution, but it could be a decisive turning point in its unfolding. Most graphically it restores most of the apparatus of power overthrown in 2011, but this time in its name – and, initially at least, supported by many of the secular, liberal and other revolutionaries who made that year their own. They lost patience with ousted president Mohammed Morsi’s inability or refusal to govern in a cooperative, pluralist way and were willing to forge an alliance with the army to get rid of him on June 30th. Since then many efforts have failed to restore a political process capable of transcending these impasses. Now the army has behaved as armies so used to exercising power do – in the name of democracy, but in real danger of undermining it.
If that is not to happen all those committed to a democratic outcome of the revolution must insist on certain basic demands. It is wrong and foolish for the military to think it can decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood by this exemplary, shocking and unacceptable display of state violence. That movement represents at least a quarter of the population and must have a role in future political life. Efforts to include it must continue; but it too has much to learn, including the need to forge alliances, tolerate religious and other differences, respect compromises and renew its traditional leadership. The army must be held to its commitment to hold inclusive elections and relinquish direct political power. To that end international pressure must be reinforced to release Mr Morsi so he can participate in the voting.
Democratising revolutions are deep learning processes for all concerned – about past crimes, political mistakes and miscalculations as well as changing popular consciousness. Many secular liberals in Egypt tolerated this army move in the belief it will teach Islamic movements a decisive lesson about the needs of a more modern, diverse Egypt as well as the necessity to restore everyday stability after prolonged disruption through sit-ins and sectarian attacks. Liberals too must absorb the lesson that armies can destroy them too if they fail to create a critical distance from such power.