Happy Birthday To Egypt’s Doomed Revolution
Exactly one year ago today, I stood in front of the Lawyers Syndicate in downtown Cairo and watched as a few thousand protesters suddenly streamed into the area from the north, overwhelmed Egypt’s notoriously violent riot police, and pushed onward towards Tahrir Square. That mile-long march, which culminated with the protesters bursting through a human chain of officers and seizing the Square, was the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever witnessed, and it remains so. Long presumed to be politically passive, ordinary Egyptians bravely amassed with one simple demand: That decades of dictatorship had to end. When Hosni Mubarak resigned eighteen tumultuous days later, the Arab Spring had bloomed.
Or so we wanted to believe. The reality of the past twelve months, however, has undone whatever high hopes one might have held. Egypt is now headed for radical theocratic, rather than liberal democratic, rule. And a befuddled Obama administration has failed to do anything to stop the coming disaster.
IT IS TEMPTING to believe that things might have turned out differently had Washington worked harder to bolster the young revolutionaries who seemingly exemplified America’s own liberal values when they took to the streets last January. These brave activists, after all, had won America’s hearts to the tune of an 82-percent approval rating at the height of the revolt, and their photogenic faces carried the promise of a more democratic, friendly Egypt.
But the activists were never who we hoped they were. Far from being liberal, their ranks were largely comprised of Nasserists, revolutionary socialists, and Muslim Brotherhood youths—an alliance of convenience for opposing Mubarak and, later, for denouncing the U.S.
Thus, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in March 2011, a group of leading activists refused to meet with her. They also turned out to be intolerant conspiracy theorists: When classically Cairoesque rumors that a “Jewish Masonic” ceremony was to be held at the pyramids on November 11, the April 6th Youth Movement’s Democratic Front declared that this non-existent event should be prohibited. “We are committed to the achievements of the revolution, which emphasized freedom,” they said in a statement. “But freedom is not absolute freedom, and … it is constrained by the regulations and beliefs of the Egyptian people, who do not accept that these celebrations be protected in the wake of the revolution.”
Not that the revolutionaries were the horse to bet on anyway. Their continued reliance on street protests following Mubarak’s ouster angered the wider Egyptian public, which desperately wanted a return to normalcy. In late October—only one day before the registration deadline—they finally formed an electoral coalition, the Revolution Continues Alliance (RCA), to compete in parliamentary elections, but it was too late. The RCA won merely 2.35 percent of the parliamentary seats, and will play a minimal role in shaping Egypt’s political future. Meanwhile, Islamist parties captured nearly 70 percent of the vote by tapping into the Egyptian public’s religious sentiments and using their well-established social services networks to turn out supporters.
The Obama administration, however, had already pegged its hopes on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power after Mubarak’s resignation with Washington’s approval—and reasonably so. After all, the military’s historic relations with Washington and its widespread support among the Egyptian public seemed to make it the ideal partner for shepherding Egypt toward a stable, democratic future.
But there were early signs that the SCAF was far more concerned about stability than it was interested in democracy. Last spring, as sectarian violence rose considerably, the military hesitated to interfere in domestic strife for fear of inciting a backlash. It also granted a platform to radical Salafists, splashing their images across the front pages of Egypt’s state-run press and hosting them on state-run news shows. Shortly thereafter, encouraged by their reception, the Salafists began organizing politically—emerging from the elections eight months later as Egypt’s second most dominant political force.