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RUBIN: After coup, can Egypt's activists lead?

  • A protester holds a poster of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo, July 4, 2013. Egypt’s new acting head of state, Adly Mansour, sought reconciliation on Thursday with the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of Morsi, the deposed leader, even as an alliance of Islamists made plans to hold protests. (Yusuf Sayman/The New York Times)

<WC1>The Arab Spring has come full circle.<WC> <WC1>Two years ago, huge crowds in Tahrir Square called for the removal of a military-backed dictator and for democratic elections. Today, opposition crowds in the same square are cheering the military's ouster of an elected government. So much for the popular appeal of electoral democracy!<WC>

<WC1>Opposition groups lay the blame for Egypt's economic and state collapse at the feet of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The military has now put forward a road map for new elections, endorsed by the opposition.

But the failure, so far, of Egypt's democratic experiment has causes that go beyond the mistakes of Morsi. Unless the opposition acts on these causes, and quickly, there will soon be new protests by disaffected Egyptians in Tahrir Square.

Let's look first at Morsi's errors. He never recognized that his narrow margin of victory made it essential for him to run an inclusive government. He won only a quarter of the votes in the first round of presidential elections, and only 50.7 percent in the final round.<WC>

<WC1>That slim victory had two causes: First <WC>—<WC1> and this is crucial <WC>—<WC1> the opposition couldn't unite on a candidate in the first round, so its three different candidates split 75 percent of the ballots. Second, many non-Islamists voted for Morsi in the final round rather than cast a ballot for the military's preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.

Instead of recognizing the sharp division within the country <WC>—<WC1> between Islamists and non-Islamists Morsi acted as if he were entitled to ignore the wishes of the other half of the country. No doubt, the secretive and long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood movement saw its victory as ordained by God.

But, in its eagerness to do God's will, the Brotherhood grabbed too fast at power, trying to gain control over every institution. It ran roughshod over Christian concerns about attacks by Islamists. It was so tone-deaf that it appointed as governor in Luxor a member of a former terrorist group-turned-political party that had once killed 60 tourists in that city.

Non-Islamists felt a whiff of a new authoritarianism. The government's overeager effort to Islamicize society led to push-back; an inability to reform the economy, or provide security or jobs, led to widespread working-class anger. Newly empowered, thousands of frustrated Egyptians again headed for Tahrir Square.

But let's look at the opposition, which also bears a large share of blame for Egypt's troubles. The youth leaders who organized both Tahrir Square revolts have proven their talent at rallying millions. But they have been unable, or unwilling, to create a coherent political movement out of an opposition that includes liberals, leftists, former regime supporters, and some moderate and Salafi Islamist groups.

These disparate groups had little in common other than their opposition to Morsi. They undercut efforts by the Morsi government to reform the collapsing economy, while proposing no workable plan of their own.


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