The return to Tahrir Square
It is a peculiar democratic movement that leans on a military, that it has already ousted from power, in the hope now that it will overthrow the elected government that replaced it. This is a measure of the precariousness of Egypt’s young democracy and the incoherence of its second revolution, if that’s what it be. In truth, just as Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi’s political brother, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complains in the face of mass protests that he has a democratic mandate to rule, so President Morsi can claim with some justice that he too, only a year in office, has not yet been given the chance fully to exercise his mandate.
At stake in both countries, and widely watched throughout the region, is the testing of the experimental reconciliation of Islamist politics with democratic politics that Erdogan has championed and which seemed to have been promised by the Arab spring from Tunisia on. But, while in Tunis a government led by the Islamist Ennahda party has been built around partnership with the opposition, in Egypt, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has seen its election as a mandate to govern alone, a recipe for fracturing the forces that supported the revolution and for inevitable confrontation. In Turkey too, the majoritarian rather than pluralist ethos of Erdogan ’s rule has fed a similar mass movement on the streets.
And in both countries, waiting in the wings, is the military, ready to broker a deal in defence of order and the secular state; an army in both cases deeply mistrustful of Islamism, heavily tainted by past support for undemocratic regimes and notorious brutality against civilians. In Egypt, in reality, as one commentator has put it, following Monday’s army ultimatum to Morsi, a “slow motion coup” is now underway.
Army chief defence minister, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, says he does not want to get involved in politics, and is merely laying down a “road map for the future” while calling for an “inclusive” process that will force an end to the paralysing rift between the Brotherhood and its opponents. But Morsi’s reluctance to accede and the lack of a coherent programme from a disparate opposition of liberals, leftwingers, Christians and supporters of Mubarak’s regime may leave the generals with what they will see as little alternative but to depose Morsi and take over.
Egypt is at a dangerous crossroads, with no guarantee that a second revolution will be any more successful than the first in bedding down democratic values or producing a legitimate government. It is critical that Morsi wrest the initiative from the military, by reaching out to the opposition for a real dialogue about sharing power, emergency economic stimulation, and the redrafting of an inclusive constitution for all Egyptians. Such is the level of disillusionment, however, it may already be too late.