The Arab Spring has come full circle.
Two years ago, huge crowds in Tahrir Square called for the removal of a military-backed dictator and for democratic elections. Today, opposition crowds in the same square are cheering the military’s ouster of an elected government. So much for the popular appeal of electoral democracy!
Opposition groups lay the blame for Egypt’s ongoing economic and state collapse at the feet of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The military has now put forward a road map for new elections, endorsed by the opposition.
But the failure, so far, of Egypt’s democratic experiment has causes that go beyond the mistakes of Morsi. Unless the opposition acts on these causes, and quickly, there will soon be new protests by disaffected Egyptians in Tahrir Square.
Let’s look first at Morsi’s errors. He never recognized that his narrow margin of victory made it essential for him to run an inclusive government. He won only a quarter of the votes in the first round of presidential elections, and only 50.7 percent in the final round. That slim victory had two causes: First — and this is crucial — the opposition couldn’t unite on a candidate in the first round, so its three different candidates split 75 percent of the ballots. Second, many non-Islamists voted for Morsi in the final round rather than cast a ballot for the military’s preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.
Instead of recognizing the sharp division within the country — between Islamists and non-Islamists — Morsi acted as if he were entitled to ignore the wishes of the other half of the country. No doubt, the secretive and long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood movement saw its victory as ordained by God.
But, in its eagerness to do God’s will, the Brotherhood grabbed too fast at power, trying to gain control over every institution. It ran roughshod over Christian concerns about attacks by Islamists. It was so tone-deaf that it appointed as governor in Luxor a member of a former terrorist group-turned-political party that had once killed 60 tourists in that city.
Non-Islamists felt a whiff of a new authoritarianism. The government’s overeager effort to Islamicize society led to push-back; an inability to reform the economy, or provide security or jobs, led to widespread working-class anger. Newly empowered, thousands of frustrated Egyptians again headed for Tahrir Square.
But let’s look at the opposition, which also bears a large share of blame for Egypt’s troubles. The youth leaders who organized both Tahrir Square revolts have proven their talent at rallying millions. But they have been unable, or unwilling, to create a coherent political movement out of an opposition that includes liberals, leftists, former regime supporters, and some moderate and Salafi Islamist groups.
These disparate groups had little in common other than their opposition to Morsi. They undercut efforts by the Morsi government to reform the collapsing economy, while proposing no workable plan of their own.
Had the opposition united behind one candidate or political program, it might have defeated Morsi in presidential elections; it also might have bested Brotherhood candidates in parliamentary elections that Morsi had promised for this fall.
Instead, if new parliamentary elections were held tomorrow and the military allowed Islamist candidates to run, they might win again, because only they are politically organized. The splintered opposition has perfected the art of street politics, but hasn’t shown it can govern.
Nor is there any sign that the opposition contains leaders who could unite the country or fix its economy. The most popular opposition political figure, Hamdeen Sabahi, is an unreformed Nasserite socialist with economic ideas more appropriate to the 1960s. When I interviewed him in 2011, his rhetoric was much more anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and anti-Israeli than the Brotherhood’s.
As for the Nobel-winner and technocrat, Mohammed ElBaradei, who has been negotiating with the military, he is popular in the West but has little purchase on the Egyptian street.
Now that Morsi is gone, opposition groups can no longer hide behind anti-Islamism. They will have to up their game and prove that they have leaders with the ability to govern.
Those leaders will have to reach out to include Islamists in the political system, or risk bloody violence if they are excluded. Polls show that the non-Islamist opposition and Islamist parties each command around 30 percent of the electorate (while 40 percent are fed up with both sides).
And opposition activists will have to move beyond the politics of Tahrir Square and street protests, which won’t save Egypt from collapsing. Otherwise, demonstrators may be soon be demanding that they, too, leave the political scene.