It was often said that the easiest part of the Arab Spring was the overthrow of the odd dictator. The more difficult part, and where many previous attempts at democratisation have failed, is the evolution of the political culture of democracy: the acceptance of a peaceful succession of power, the principle of the loyal opposition and even the patience to wait for trials at the ballot box.
Egypt, the democratic hope of the Arab world, is presently failing all these tests. It elected a president who began assuming extra-constitutional authority.
He was then overthrown in what amounted to a coup d’etat. The military has promised elections but in the run up to the polls, the leadership of the largest political party has been put behind bars and, dangerously, security forces have killed more than 150 protestors in just two days in an attempt at intimidation.
Worse may be yet to come. The Muslim Brotherhood who have been at the end of the military regime’s gun barrel, has shown no signs of backing down.
It doesn’t help that their leadership, largely behind bars, is unable to rein in the more hot-tempered among its youthful ranks. The military’s ham-handed response to the demonstrations shows how little the Arab Spring changed the Egyptian brass’ fundamental scepticism regarding democracy and dislike for the Islamicist group.
In the long run, the most damaging aspect of the past few weeks has been the open support of liberal, secular and minority groups for the military action. This is a short-sighted and dangerous attitude.
The secular and religious groups should recognise that while they differ from the Islamicists in their respective visions of Egypt, they are on the same side when it comes to the political process by which these visions are to be accomplished. By siding with the military, the liberal and secular regimes undermine the country’s still nascent mass commitment to democracy.
The Brotherhood was not without its own acts of folly. President Mohamed Morsi proved incapable of playing the role of a national leader and had a poor sense of his own flawed legitimacy.
He should have focussed on institution building rather than ideology. Unfortunately, the interim Egyptian regime is arguably following the same path but in an even bloodier and more polarising manner.
Egypt cannot have its next election early enough. The only fear is that, by then, the various political players will have discredited democracy to the point of making the election redundant.