By their own admission, western countries such as the US and Britain failed to see Egypt's revolution coming. But are they making the same mistake twice? Less than two years after Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, his successor, Mohamed Morsi, shelters behind army tanks in the presidential
palace as angry demonstrators denounce him as the "new pharaoh". The unrest that began on November 22 shows no sign of subsiding.
Despite the fury over a perceived power-grab, Morsi's downfall does not seem likely in the near term. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political force, stands squarely behind him. The army, scarred by its experiences during the post-Mubarak interregnum, is keeping to barracks. The young revolutionaries who claim to have inspired and led the 2011 uprising are in a minority. And the anti-Morsi camp is divided.
"The opposition is an odd assortment of liberals, socialists, old regime nostalgists and ordinary, angry Egyptians, each with their own disparate grievances and objectives," said Shadi Hamid in Foreign Policy.
Yet, assuming he weathers the storm, Morsi's authority and prestige have been severely damaged. The honeymoon that followed last June's elections is over. And the president's popular position may only weaken the longer clashes continue and the political row over his arbitrary decrees and the new constitution festers.
The prospect of ongoing, chronic political weakness in Egypt is bad news for the West and for the neighbourhood. The US, Britain and pro-western Arab states initially stood aghast at the Muslim Brotherhood's new ascendancy. But trepidation gave way to relief as Morsi presented himself as a unifying figure, built an inclusive administration and eschewed the worst kind of reprisals against the old regime. Only Israel has remained wholly sceptical throughout.
Morsi's speech in Tehran in August, when he demanded the Syrian regime stand down, enraged his Iranian hosts and delighted Washington. Talking like a spokesman for the Arab spring, he said Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy - a misfortune his critics say has now befallen him.
Morsi's value as the leader of a resurgent Egypt reassuming its traditional Arab leadership role, as a counter to Iran and its spreading influence in the region, as a friend and ally to Nato member Turkey, as an upholder of the peace treaty with Israel and as a conduit for western political influence and business rose as the months passed. Egypt was "rewarded" with a preliminary agreement for a $4.8bn International Monetary Fund loan. Talk of cutting the annual $1.3bn bilateral US subsidy faded. Recently he proved himself again, helping Hillary Clinton broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
But surging political instability now places all these gains in jeopardy. From a western perspective, recent developments reawaken initial fears, never overcome in Israel, that Morsi is little more than the frontman for a sinister, slow-burning Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy intent on imposing an Islamist system in Egypt and exporting it across the neighbourhood. In this analysis, Egypt's second revolution may actually be a sectarian, anti-democratic counter-revolution.
Unless they stand up and denounce Morsi's power grab, the US and its allies risk repeating their old mistake of effectively endorsing dictatorship, analysts say. And this time their dilemma could be even worse. Mubarak was America's dictator; Morsi is beyond control.
Speaking last month, Clinton, indicated she understood the problem. "As the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear, the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent." So what will the US do if Morsi crushes Egypt's infant democracy and charges regardless down to the road to dictatorship? It is safe to say nobody, including the Americans, knows the answer.
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