The Arab Spring was an exercise in irony, nowhere more so than in Egypt. On the surface, it appeared to be the Arab equivalent of 1989 in Eastern Europe. There, the Soviet occupation suppressed a broad, if not universal desire for constitutional democracy modeled on Western Europe. The year 1989 shaped a generation’s thinking in the West, and when they saw the crowds in the Arab streets, they assumed that they were seeing Eastern Europe once again.
There were certainly constitutional democrats in the Arab streets in 2011, but they were not the main thrust. Looking back on the Arab Spring, it is striking how few personalities were replaced, how few regimes fell, and how much chaos was left in its wake. The uprising in Libya resulted in a Western military intervention that deposed former leader Moammar Gadhafi and replaced him with massive uncertainty. The uprising in Syria has not replaced Syrian President Bashar al Assad but instead sparked a war between him and an Islamist-dominated opposition. Elsewhere, revolts have been contained with relative ease. The irony of the Arab Spring was that in opening the door for popular discontent, it demonstrated that while the discontent was real, it was neither decisive nor clearly inclined toward constitutional democracy.
This is what makes Egypt so interesting. The Egyptian uprising has always been the most ambiguous even while being cited as the most decisive. It is true that former President Hosni Mubarak fell in 2011. It is also true that elections were held in 2012, when a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood‘s election as president highlighted the reality that a democratic election is not guaranteed to produce a liberal democratic result. In any case, the now-deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, won by only a slim margin and he was severely constrained as to what he could do.
But the real issue in Egypt has always been something else. Though a general was forced out of office in 2011, it was not clear that the military regime did not remain, if not in power, then certainly the ultimate arbiter of power in Egyptian politics. Over the past year, so long as Morsi remained the elected president, the argument could be made that the military had lost its power. But just as we argued that the fall of Hosni Mubarak had been engineered by the military in order to force a succession that the aging Mubarak resisted, we can also argue that while the military had faded into the background, it remained the decisive force in Egypt.
Modern Egypt was founded in 1952 in a military coup by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was committed to modernizing Egypt, and he saw the army as the only real instrument of modernization. He was a secularist committed to the idea that Arab nations ought to be united, but not Islamist by any means. He was a socialist, but not a communist. Above all else, he was an Egyptian army officer committed to the principle that the military guaranteed the stability of the Egyptian nation.
When the uprisings of the Arab Spring came, Nasser’s successors used the unrest to force Mubarak out, and then they stepped back. It is interesting to consider whether they would have been content to retain their institutional position under a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. However, Morsi never really took control of the machinery of government, partly because he was politically weak, partly because the Muslim Brotherhood was not ready to govern, and partly because the military never quite let go.
This dynamic culminated in the demonstrations of this “Egyptian Summer.” The opposition leadership appears to support constitutional democracy. Whether the masses in the streets do as well or whether they simply dislike the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to tell, but we suspect their interests are about food and jobs more than about the principles of liberalism. Still, there was an uprising, and once again the military put it to use.
In part, the military did not want to see chaos, and it saw itself as responsible for averting it. In part, the military distrusted the Muslim Brotherhood and was happy to see it forced out of office. As in 2011, the army acted overtly to maintain order and simultaneously to shape the Egyptian political order. They deposed Morsi, effectively replacing him with a more secular and overtly liberal leadership.
But what must be kept in mind is that, just as in 2011, when the military was willing to pave the way for Morsi, so too is it now paving the way for his opposition. And this is the crucial point — while Egypt is increasingly unstable, the army is shaping what order might come out of it. The military is less interested in the ideology of the government than in containing chaos. Given this mission, it does not see itself as doing more than stepping back. It does not see itself as letting go.
The irony of the Egyptian Arab Spring is that while it brought forth new players, it has not changed the regime or the fundamental architecture of Egyptian politics. The military remains the dominant force, and while it is prepared to shape Egypt cleverly, what matters is that it will continue to shape Egypt.
Therefore, while it is legitimate to discuss a military coup, it is barely legitimate to do so. What is going on is that there is broad unhappiness in Egypt that is now free to announce its presence. This unhappiness takes many ideological paths, as well as many that have nothing to do with ideology. Standing on stage with the unhappiness is the military, manipulating, managing and containing it. Everyone else, all of the politicians, come and go, playing a short role and moving on — the military and the crowd caught in a long, complex and barely comprehensible dance.