The forcible expulsion of young, secular protesters from their encampment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — with the enthusiastic help of ordinary Egyptians — has the feeling of a watershed moment. So does the imminent appearance of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in an iron cage to stand trial on live television.
The young, secular protesters in Tahrir Square have been badly outmaneuvered in a three-way contest between themselves, the ruling military council, and the country’s rising Islamists. The optimistic view of the revolution held that Egypt’s Islamists were artificially propped up by their status as the only available outlet for anti-regime sentiment. Supposedly, the Islamists were destined to decline as a raft of newly empowered democratic parties sparked the enthusiasm of the public.
The truth was the opposite. Once government suppression of the Islamists was lifted, they were legitimized and empowered. The military regime struck up an informal alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, as defense against the students’ desire to strip the military of its business interests and power. The Obama administration’s openly expressed willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood — implicitly refusing to hold American aid hostage to keeping the Islamists in check — removed the last potential obstacle to an Islamist renaissance. The result was the recent immense demonstration in which, not only the Muslim Brotherhood but a wide array of even harder-line Islamists turned on the badly outnumbered students, demanding an end to secularism and a fully Islamic state.
The supposedly secular and liberal pro-democracy protesters were never particularly liberal at all. Rather, they are a motley collection of hard-leftists and Arab nationalists, with only a very few “liberals” mixed in, many of whom would barely be recognizable as liberals to most Westerners. These protesters have deluded themselves into believing that the broader Egyptian public stands with them. That delusion is protected, above all, by the refusal of the supposed pro-democracy forces to organize a serious political coalition and undertake an aggressive campaign to contest the upcoming elections. The protesters keep asking for electoral delays so as to give them more time to organize against the Islamists, yet they never seem to leave Tahrir Square to actually take their case to the people.
The truth is that the Tahrir protesters are less democrats than a new incarnation of the Arab street, more equipped and inclined to achieve their goals through rabble-rousing than through modern electoral politics. Sensing that they cannot defeat the Islamists at the ballot box, their strategy has been to rally the people to their side with demands to put Mubarak and his cronies on trial. The hope is to energize public anger, discredit the remnants of the old regime still clinging to power, force the military to adopt a secular bill of rights before an Islamist-dominated parliament can re-write the constitution, and ultimately push the military rulers aside.
This strategy is yet another hopeless dream of seizing power with no real base from which to work. The recent demonstrations organized by the secularists were supposed to recruit the Islamists to their agenda of putting the old regime on trial and undercutting the military. That failed when the Islamists refused to be co-opted and turned on the secularists. Meanwhile, the broader Egyptian public has also turned sharply against the protesters. The ongoing street disruptions have killed off Egypt’s essential tourist industry, hollowed out an already disastrously weak economy, kept the police forces in disarray, and generally kept the country barely functional for months. That’s why the public joined in to help the military eject the demonstrators from Tahrir Square just a day before Mubarak’s trial.
Now Mubarak will appear in his cage, but with the students out of Tahrir Square and unable to rally the public against the regime. Quite possibly, after a day or two of spectacle, the trial will go into recess. The revolutionists will have been checkmated, and a government run jointly by the military and the Islamists will be left to take root. No doubt, Egypt’s Islamists now look to Turkey as a model for how to undercut the military over time. They will be patient, while enjoying substantial power in the meantime.
We are a long way from liberal democracy in Egypt. And as Egypt goes, so goes the Arab Spring.