Nothing gets our journalists and intellectuals into an orgasmic state of mind quicker than the shared sentiment that they are living history and in some way drawing the narrative outline of a new historical epoch. We inhabit a 24/7 media environment that requires bloggers to produce instant narratives every hour of the day and night. So every meaningless statement by a low-level politician or official, every neighborhood fight in a faraway province or diplomatic contretemps between two mini-states, tends to be given profound meaning, signifying that we are on the verge of major historical changes.
And when something really important does happen—the resignation of a leader, mass demonstrations, a military conflict—we are told the world will never be the same: America will become an empire, or perhaps find itself in the dustbin of history; we are entering an age of global anarchy, or may witness the birth of a New World Order; the Arab World will explode and Egypt will become “like Iran,” or the Middle East is actually entering the liberal-democratic age and Egypt will become “like Turkey”; it’s the Arab Spring, or maybe it’s the Arab Winter.
Never mind that the middle class in Turkey is split between traditionalists and secularists, not unlike the divisions between conservatives and liberals in Russia; or that most members of the middle class in China are going out to shop and not to demonstrate; or that the protesters in Rio were just protesting the rise in bus fares and were not calling a revolution against the ruling Workers Revolutionary Party.
Our experts, long insistent that “democracy” would and should sweep the planet quite soon, have found themselves trapped in cognitive dissonance as unexpected events unfold in those two famous squares—Taskim in Istanbul and Tahrir in Cairo.
Recall that these pundits led us to believe that holding free and open elections in Egypt and other Arab countries would mark the start of a new epoch in which the region’s people would join the West. But something not-so-funny happened on the way to the ballot box, first in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon (following George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”), then in Egypt and Tunisia (in the aftermath of the Arab Spring): the people voted in Islamist parties with more than 50 shades of illiberalism.
So the autocrats fell, and the winners were Islamists—ranging from the relatively good ones (Turkey) to the really bad ones (anti-Assad Islamists in Syria with a taste for human flesh). For a while, proponents of the democracy-is-winning narrative tried to resolve the cognitive dissonance through intellectual acrobatics, for example by comparing Islamist parties to the Christian-Democratic parties in the West.
Yet two years after the overthrow of Mubarak, here were demonstrators in Tahrir Square again, demanding the ouster of an elected leader and urging the military to do the ousting. And so the notion that Egypt had gone through a democratic revolution aimed at removing the military from power—the same military that is now being applauded as the savior of the nation by many of the same people who had denounced it two years ago—was revealed as nonsense.
Call it Tahrir Square Syndrome. Indeed, in the fantastical universe of our experts, the people oust the autocrats (with direct or indirect American support) in order to allow free elections, which supposedly equal democracy—unless the people elect the bad guys, which then leaves the people no choice but to oust the elected bad guys and return the autocrats to power (with direct or indirect American support) and have another open election in which the people will elect the good guys. Or not.
What Westerners have yet to realize is that what has been happening in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is not part of a new historical epoch driven by the quest for liberal democracy but is first and foremost a struggle for power, as I pointed out here in the aftermath of the first Tahrir Square demonstrations two years ago.
What happened in Egypt last week was not a military coup for one simple reason: the military has not been out of power since the 1952 revolution—when it abolished the old political system—and that includes the period after the generals removed President Hosni Mubarak from office. Contrary to the conventional Western narrative, the protesters failed to ignite a full-blown revolution two years ago.
Mass protests may indeed reflect political anxiety and anti-government sentiments among some members of the population. But to translate a media event in which “the whole world is watching” into significant political change, you need more than thousands, or even millions, of protestors. To achieve a real overhaul of the political and economic system you need a unified and well-organized movement that is willing to work with other political forces to achieve a set of coherent and realistic goals.
The protests that swept European capitals in 1848 and the student demonstrations of the 1960s couldn’t transform the status quo because the leaders of these movements failed to reach out to other segments of their nations, including members of the middle class, workers, and peasants. In fact, not only did the students marching in Paris and Chicago in 1968 fail to achieve their goals, but they also triggered powerful counter-revolutionary forces that made it possible for Charles de Gaulle to get re-elected by a huge margin in France and for Richard Nixon to win the race for the White House. Similarly, the so-called revolutions of 1848 ended up strengthening Europe’s autocracies and created conditions for the rise of illiberal nationalist forces.
In New York and London, viewers of al Jazeera and CNN watched the demonstrators in Tahrir Square two years ago and were impressed by young, liberal, secular types with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, articulating in perfect English their hopes for a democratic and liberal future. But when Mubarak was deposed, the only substantive change was the military allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in an open election.
Like the military and the security apparatus (the Mukhabarat), the Muslim Brotherhood was and is a viable political force. Established 80 years ago, the Brotherhood has strong roots in Egyptian society—name recognition, if you will—in addition to effective organizational skills, neither of which has been possessed by proponents of Western ideologies: liberals, socialists, or communists. President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated elected government probably should have tried to strike a deal with the military under which Egypt could have been ruled through a political condominium consisting of the Islamists and the Generals.
But with the taste of power comes the hunger for more power. Morsi and his partners in the Muslim Brotherhood fantasized that they were really in charge—and discovered to their chagrin that such was not the case. The military is now re-asserting the authority it never lost, and any elected or unelected government now will be under the direct and indirect control of the generals.
That could certainly produce a powerful and perhaps violent backlash from Egypt’s Islamists. But the military and security forces would be able to suppress a counter-counter revolution. The only question is whether that would drive the country into a long, low-intensity civil war or whether political stability could be re-established with a minimum of bloodshed.
Unlike Turkey, where an assertive middle class has emerged in recent years, liberal and secular forces remain an urban minority in Egypt and are unlikely to win and maintain power without the military’s support. Western observers who are already coming up with instant mega-narratives—that liberal secularists have won in Egypt or that political Islam is dead in the region—shouldn’t be surprised if reality bites them once again.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.