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Egypt after Morsi

BERLIN – Egypt lies at the heart of the Arab revolution, even if the original spark occurred in Tunisia. But Egypt – with its strategic location, stable borders, large population, and ancient history – has been the principal power of the Arab world for centuries, defining the movement of history there like no other. This implies that the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, will have much broader repercussions.

Was Morsi’s ouster a classic counterrevolution in the guise of a military coup? Or did the coup prevent a total takeover of power by the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus avert Egypt’s economic collapse and chaotic descent into religious dictatorship?

No one should deny that what happened in Egypt was a military coup, or that forces from former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime have returned to power. But, unlike in 2011, when the few pro-Western liberals and huge numbers of urban, middle-class youth rallied against Mubarak, now the same groups support the coup, lending it a certain (democratic?) legitimacy. Nonetheless, the overthrow of a democratically elected government by the military cannot be glossed over.

So what options does Egypt now have? Will it repeat the Algerian tragedy, in which the military canceled an election to prevent Islamists from assuming power, leading to an eight-year civil war that claimed up to 200,000 lives? Will the country return to military dictatorship? Or will Egypt end up with something like a Kemalist “democracy” of the type that long prevailed in Turkey, with a civilian government but the military pulling the strings? All three alternatives are possible, though it is impossible to predict which one will come to pass.

But one thing already can be said for certain: the basic distribution of power within Egyptian society has not changed. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood divide power between themselves. The Western-oriented liberals do not have any real power and stand, as we are seeing now, on the army’s shoulders. We should not forget that Morsi’s opponent in the presidential election in 2012 was Ahmed Shafik, a former general and the last Mubarak-era prime minister – certainly no liberal.

A victory by either the Brotherhood or the military would not be a victory for democracy. Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, may serve as an example of what the Brotherhood wants: undivided power, including over the military. Likewise, the Egyptian army’s hold on power, beginning in the 1950’s, resulted in a decades-long military dictatorship.

But there is a third and new factor now in play, one that does not measure power in the same way as the military and the Brotherhood. Through their leadership of the protests for two years, urban middle-class youth have gained their own legitimacy, and, with their technological and linguistic capacities, are able to dominate global debate about Egypt.

These young people want progress, not power; they want the future to resemble the life that they see on the Internet and in the West. If this movement were channeled into institutional politics, it would significantly affect Egypt’s internal distribution of power.

Egypt’s unfolding drama will be framed by the triangle of contradictions and demands among these three groups. And it should not be forgotten that, along with young people’s sense that they lacked a future under the nationalistic military dictatorships of the past, mass poverty was the second trigger of the 2011 revolution.

Underlying the contradiction between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is not only the question of religion, but also all of the social problems, including inequality, that riddle Arab societies. The Brotherhood has effectively assumed a role similar to that of left-wing European political parties in the nineteenth century. Whoever wants to weaken the Brotherhood has to address the urgent social issues that it raises and try to solve them.

This means that whatever solution ultimately prevails will be measured according to whether it can solve the economic crisis (particularly the lack of job opportunities for the young) and deepening mass poverty. The chances of this are slim.

Throughout the Arab world, nationalism constricts societies and retards cooperation, the dismantling of tariffs, and the creation of an economic community. And yet the economies of the Arab countries in crisis are too small to succeed on their own; even if everything goes well, they cannot offer their large and young populations hope of a positive future. They need enhanced cooperation, which, given a common language, would rest on a stronger foundation than it does in Europe.

In Egypt, the West should work with all three leading political forces – the military, the Brotherhood, and the urban young – because no short-term solution will come in the form of one option. The worst approach would be to marginalize or even persecute the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam again.

More broadly, with Syria’s civil war destabilizing Lebanon and threatening to do the same in Jordan, and with Iraq plagued by similar sectarian violence, the military coup in Egypt appears to herald the end of the Arab revolutions, at least for the time being. Everywhere, the signs are pointing backwards.

But we should not be deceived. Even if the struggle for power seems decided, this does not mean a return to the former status quo. When the revolutions of 1848 in Europe were rolled back the following year, everything was nonetheless different, as we now know. The monarchies remained in power for decades, but the Industrial Revolution and the advent of democracy had become unstoppable.

We also know, however, that this led Europe to a future that was anything but serene. The Arab world might not be so deeply affected, but the near future there will certainly be neither peaceful nor stable.