Paul Pillar

The Arab Spring and Dashed Hopes in Egypt

I observed early during the Arab Spring, with specific reference to the danger of extremists making greater inroads in the Middle East, that the regional tumult had multiple positive and negative aspects. On the plus side was the fact that significant political change was achieved in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt without resort to extremist violence, thereby disproving the part of the extremist message that argues such violence is necessary. In ousting Hosni Mubarak, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square achieved what Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads what is left of al-Qaeda, tried and failed for many years to achieve through terrorism. Moreover, to the extent that the revolts may increase the total amount of democracy in the Middle East, the added peaceful channels for pursuing political objectives will make the path of extremist violence all the more irrelevant and unattractive.

An offsetting negative is that instability and breakdown of order opens the field for a game in which anyone, violent extremists included, can play. We have seen that happen in Libya. It is happening as well in Syria.

I also mentioned another negative that was less generally recognized than the hazard of extremists exploiting chaos and instability. This is the hazard of the extremist message regaining credibility if popular hopes and expectations that accompanied peaceful political change went unrealized. The country of most concern was Egypt, where public expectations that Mubarak's departure would quickly usher in substantial economic as well as political improvement became unrealistically high.

We are seeing today in Egypt a consequence of those inflated expectations going unfulfilled. The expectations were so high it is unlikely that any Egyptian government, with or without Mohamed Morsi, could have met them. The complaints repeatedly voiced by those now filling Tahrir Square center chiefly on Egypt's dismal economy, with many also mentioning insufficient security. Placing top priority on one's standard of living and the prospects for improving it is a universal tendency.

Issues more specific to Morsi and to the Muslim Brotherhood from which he emerged are factors but lesser ones. Some express dissatisfaction with Morsi being insufficiently inclusive in the making of appointments and formulation of policy. The Islamist nature of the Brotherhood has been one of the less important aspects of the newest round of protest. Morsi has done little to Islamicize Egypt from above during his year as president. He is facing at least as much dissatisfaction from Salafists in not doing enough in that direction as he is from secularists in doing too much.

Egypt being one of the most important Arab countries, we should watch the ongoing events there with interest and concern but also with the realization that there is little the United States can or should do in response to those events. Anything that smacks of U.S. intervention in the internal politics of Egypt would only antagonize one or more elements there. The United States should be prepared to develop a good relationship with whoever is in charge in Cairo once the dust settles.

Whether extremist messages do regain credibility in Egypt remains to be seen. In the meantime, we should reflect on what the events in Egypt imply regarding our tendency to gauge everything in the Middle East in terms of Islamists versus non-Islamists. Oversimplification of fault lines and popular priorities is one problem with that tendency. A presumption that Islamists are worse than non-Islamists for U.S. interests is another problem. Yet another is that even if one is uncomfortable with Islamists in power, the best way to deal with that discomfort may be to let the Islamists fail. That is partly what is happening in Egypt today. The Muslim Brotherhood developed much of its organizational strength and the positive part of its public image during many years as the most important, albeit formally banned, opposition group in Egypt. It is hard to maintain such an image when people hold you responsible for the price of bread and whether sewers work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/لؤي عمران. CC BY-SA 3.0.