The ancien regime in Egypt should tread carefully
Catastrophe is looming in Egypt, and the next month or two will have major implications for the Middle East and U.S. policy there. The revolution that overthrew the old guard last year had brought hope to tens of millions of Egyptians, but now the Egyptian military and its supporters in the higher echelons of Egyptian society are endangering the fragile new order.
Over the last two weeks, the Egyptian military has assumed legislative powers after a court decision to disband the newly elected parliament, insisted on authoring a new constitution that maximizes its influence in politics, expanded its authority to arrest and try civilians, and increased its troop presence throughout Egyptian cities. Meanwhile, the favored candidate of military leaders to win this week’s presidential election, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, has yet to concede defeat while his opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi has yet to be declared winner by Egypt’s electoral oversight council.
While unlikely, if Shafiq is determined to be the winner, or the election is nullified, Egypt will explode — whether into armed conflict or armed repression by a military that will face mass protests that would compared to last year’s Arab Spring. In the more likely event that Morsi is certified the winner, the standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will continue to remain tense, as each side competes for influence and power under the new regime. The military will control the guns, while the Brotherhood controls the street through continued mass rallies meant to bring pressure on the military.
The likely outcome of a continued standoff between Morsi, as the new president, and the military bodes poorly for the forces of moderation in the country. While the Muslim Brotherhood is often labeled as “Islamist” and “fundamentalist” in the new media, the group is actually comprised of, and draws upon, a wide spectrum of supporters — from practical moderates to the a hard-core religious base. The problem is, the longer confrontation with the military drags on, the more Morsi and other leaders in the Brotherhood will call upon the passionate radicals in the organization to confront the military. While high-ranking members of the military fear the more extreme elements of the Brotherhood, their actions could empower exactly those they fear most.The biggest challenges to revolutions are reversal and extremism. Egypt stands on the razor’s edge between both outcomes. Many in the military would like to turn-back-the-clock to the Mubarak era, but it is too late for that without significant bloodshed and international isolation.
Many revolutions first produce moderate leaders, who are later displaced by radicals or become more radical themselves. The Russian Provisional Government was overthrown by Bolsheviks, the burgeoning democracy in post-revolutionary Iran was crushed by the Ayatollah, and early efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy after the French Revolution gave way to the guillotine.
The Egyptian military and its supporters should heed the lessons of the French Revolution. They are the ancien régime, the much resented but still feared representatives of the old system of corruption and privilege. Louis XVI might have saved his own neck, as well as those of his family and thousands of supporters, had he embraced the changes occurring in his country. Instead the revolution “devoured its own children,” descending into bloody repression and, eventually, paving the way for Napolean Bonaparte, who set the rest of Europe ablaze, costing millions of lives. Such is the worst case scenario for Egypt, but that it is a possibility is a cause for real concern.