Will it take a second revolution to complete Egypt’s democratic transition, begun more than two years ago? Many Egyptians think so, and they are planning massive demonstrations on Sunday in an attempt to oust President Mohamed Morsi from office.
Mr. Morsi, an Islamist with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected last year. Sunday is the anniversary of his inauguration, and his supporters plan counter-demonstrations. Morsi maintains that the ballot box is the way to change leaders, and he’s right – when elections take place in a democracy.
But Egypt is now under the tight control of a political duopoly of the military and Morsi and his Islamist allies. It has no lawful parliament. Its constitution was created without the input of secular democrats. Opposition activists are under arrest.
Many protesters who started Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrations for freedom and rights in 2011 now say their revolution has been hijacked, and they’re right, too.
The increasingly anti-democratic regime reached its nadir this month when it convicted three dozen Egyptian and Western employees of pro-democracy non-profits – most of the Westerners in abstentia – for conducting voter education efforts. Sentences ranged from one to five years.
A month earlier, it arrested Ahmed Maher, who co-founded the April 6 youth protest movement, though he was later released pending trial. His communications savvy and raw courage helped pro-democracy demonstrators take and hold Tahrir Square, and ultimately oust dictator Hosni Mubarak.
But after the fall of Mr. Mubarak, who was an Air Force general, the military retained power through a junta of other generals. The generals retained Mubarak’s dreaded security police and their well-documented reliance on torture. The junta arrested bloggers and other activists for non-violent dissent, such as “insulting” the regime, and gave them long prison sentences in sham military courts.
Curiously, however, the military focused its repression almost entirely on secular democrats: It released Islamists from prison and allowed them to operate freely. The Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, avoided criticizing the military and refused to support calls to hold it accountable for its human rights abuses.
With many of their organizers in jail, the secular democrats were ill-equipped to compete in the country’s first post-Mubarak presidential election last June. The junta, however, took no chances, barring all pro-Western secular democrats from the ballot through its appointed election commission. Morsi was elected because Egyptian voters preferred him to yet another Air Force general. But the generals denied voters plausible alternatives to military or Islamist rule.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood had been a late and halting participant in the revolution, once in power, President Morsi could have risen to the occasion and led all Egyptians into a democratic future. Instead, he entrenched the Brotherhood’s power and cemented its nascent alliance with the military.
He stacked the commission writing Egypt’s new constitution with Islamists after granting himself power to rule by emergency decree (which he rescinded after a public outcry). Despite the absence of a democratically elected parliament, he has pushed hard to enact laws that restrict non-governmental organizations, do not address vote-rigging, and expand his control over the judiciary.
And rather than appointing officials from a cross-section of Egyptian society to guide a democratic transition, he has relied narrowly on Brotherhood loyalists in his cabinet, as prosecutors, and as governors.
President Eisenhower famously warned against the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Egypt today is in the grips of a military-Islamist complex. The Islamists provide a veneer of democratic legitimacy and shield the military from accountability for corruption and human rights violations.
The military and security police, in turn, supply muscle to keep the new regime in power. And the military manipulates the Obama administration’s anxiety about Islamists to secure continued massive aid despite its human rights abuses against democracy advocates.
The chief threats to both of these power centers are secular democrats, and Islamists and security forces have combined to repress them with increasing ruthlessness. In a pattern sadly reminiscent of the worst days of this country’s civil rights struggles half a century ago, non-violent demonstrators today are first attacked by armed thugs and then arrested.
The military also is adept at wielding the enormous economic power accruing from its ownership of large segments of Egyptian industry, silencing independent media outlets.
The Egyptian people, however, have come too far to turn back. The Egyptian revolution sprang from a broad cross-section of society. Coptic Christians and Muslims protected each other in Tahrir Square during their respective religious observances.
The April 6 movement was founded in support of a textile workers’ strike and continues to mobilize youth to defend the well-being of poor and working people. Soccer clubs played a crucial role in the demonstrations that sparked the revolution.
Repression has taken its toll, yet secular democrats remain resilient. And funny, too: Ahmed Maher’s alleged crime was organizing a demonstration where lingerie was thrown at the Interior Ministry to signify that it is in bed with dictators rather than protecting the people.
Courageous journalists who were left unemployed after the regime friendly parent company closed the Egypt Independent – a superb newspaper by any country’s standards – are organizing a new publication. The courts gave the opposition leverage when they recently declared that last year’s parliamentary elections and the selection of the constitution-writing commission – all stacked for the Islamists – were illegal.
Defying the fractiousness often seen in post-revolutionary politics, secular democrats have formed broad alliances, including moderate elements of the old regime as well as leftists, to demand new, transparent elections. And they have remained steadfastly non-violent.
As Europeans learned when communism fell, ousting a tyrant is just the first step on the road to democracy. Some of the former East Bloc countries went directly from communist totalitarianism to multi-party democracy. But others replaced their old leaders with new, more moderate dictators, requiring second revolutions years later. And some of those countries are still waiting.
Morsi would be wise to heed the demands of the opposition for a roadmap to national reconciliation – a more inclusive governing approach that can begin to tackle the country’s economic woes. Otherwise, he may find himself ousted like Mubarak.
David A. Super teaches law at Georgetown University.