At the present time of writing, Egyptian army chief Al-Sisi has just announced that President Mursi has 48 hours to meet protesters’s demands, thus heightening speculation among some of an impending military coup.
This is the time to make two points.
First I have argued before that we must realize, from obvious historical precedent, that revolutions are not instantaneous affairs: they go through phases. In this way, the French revolution saw a moderate if relatively incompetent republic before it saw Robespierre, and it saw Robespierre before it saw Napoleon. In Iran the 1979 protests were largely secular and socialist before they were hijacked by the forces supporting Ayatollah Khomeini. In Russia, finally, there was the moderate Kerenski government and actual democratic elections before there was the final Bolshevik take-over by Lenin.
None of this is to say, as some do say, that the “Arab Spring” cannot, ultimately, flower in democracy. But it is to say that almost certainly this will not be any sort of linear or direct transition, and equally that such an outcome is by no means guaranteed.
The second point is to recall the figure of Mubarak. Today’s opposition protesters are, either covertly or even openly, saying that they would prefer the military to step in and take power from the elected Islamist government. But if a secular authoritarian is what the public wants, I seem to recall one who was ousted not too long ago!
What these developments underscore is that the real dynamics of Egyptian politics have not, as the West would like, suddenly shifted from their decade-long tendencies to a simple opposition between democrats and authoritarians. Instead, the democratic tendency evinced in Tahrir was merely one factor complicating the standing conflict that has characterized Egypt for decades, namely that between Islamists and secularists. In this way, one lesson is that we should look carefully at the political status quo in a particular country before exulting in its apparent embrace of something resembling our preferred liberal system of government. Another lesson is that we should not keep dismissing out of hand, as we have done in all three the cases of Mubarak, Khaddafi and Assad, these leaders’ justifications of their rule in resisting a dangerous tendency towards Islamism. The fact that these leaders are authoritarians does not mean they enjoy no support, are not there for a reason, nor that everything they say is false.
Mubarak warned the West upon leaving his post: beware, you are underestimating the Islamist forces I was keeping from power. Today Egypt’s population seems to agree.