Two years after the beginning of the uprising that brought down president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is still in the early stages of its transition to a new system.
There are no heroes in this story. Islamists, buoyed by repeated demonstrations of electoral support and by the fecklessness of a divided and disorganized opposition, are reverting to the well-established authoritarian practices of all previous Egyptian regimes even while they continue to assert their unstinting commitment to democracy. The secular opposition remains divided by the personal ambitions and petty quarrels of its leaders and its inability to choose whether it wants to build a new, liberal Egypt or simply ensure the survival of the old political elite that has ruled Egypt for decades.
Yes, in between the two sides there are some liberals who truly want Egypt to become a democracy, but they are too few to have a decisive impact. The crowds that two years ago united in demanding change are now fragmented by confusion and allegiance to different parties and goals. There is still a transition underway because the situation remains fluid, but it is not clear what form of governance Egypt is moving to.
The present impasse is not a case of revolution betrayed, or of an Arab spring degenerating into an Islamic winter, as some have glibly put it. The uprising—it was certainly not a revolution—was not betrayed because there was no goal uniting all participants beyond the overthrow of Mubarak. As is usually the case, the uprising simply allowed political and social forces that already existed in the country to emerge from the layer of repression imposed by the previous regime. In some countries, the forces that emerge are rooted in ethnic and sectarian divisions. In relatively homogeneous Egypt, they are rooted in the deep divide between Islamists and secularists.
It was no secret that before 2011, the Muslim Brothers represented a major segment of Egyptian public opinion. That is why Mubarak’s security services had been arresting them by the thousands, with their leaders on a virtual turntable that put them in and out of jail repeatedly. And in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood had demonstrated its strength by winning 20 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. The only surprise after the uprising was the degree of support that also existed for the more fundamentalist Salafi position.
Nor was it a secret that secular parties, both on the right and the left, lacked a strong popular following—their election results had been dismal for a long time and in private conversations their leaders readily admitted the weakness of their constituencies. Nor was it a surprise that much of the Egyptian intellectual elite, while critical of Mubarak and his regime, could not accept to be pushed aside by upstarts in the Muslim Brotherhood, who belonged not only to a different intellectual tradition but to a different social class as well.
While the outcome was not surprising, nobody had really been prepared for it. Islamists, finding themselves more popular than they had dared to hope, threw the initial caution to the wind and competed for the presidency, reversing their initial decision to stay out of that contest. Secular parties, stunned by the fact that they only managed to secure thirty percent of parliamentary seats, turned to the courts to have the election law declared unconstitutional and the parliament disbanded. They tried to halt or at least slow down the constitution-making process by having the constituent assembly declared illegal, and even attempted to have the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party disbanded as illegal organizations.
As a result, on the second anniversary of the uprising, Egypt is still caught in a battle between competing political forces that operate in distinct arenas with different bases of support. Islamists fight in the electoral arena because they have popular support; secularists use the courts and state institutions, which are still controlled by members of the old elite. The only arena the two sides share, dangerously, is the streets, to which both turn in an attempt to score points against each other.
How does Egypt move on? And what can the United States do to help, or at least not make the situation worse?
The most important step is for secular parties to accept that, if they want a democratic outcome, they have to fight in the electoral arena. Democracy does not just mean elections, though they are an unavoidable component of a democratic process. Secular parties have already wasted two years they should have devoted to organizing in squabbling among themselves and hoping that the courts could stop the rise of Islamist parties. With the economy in tatters and many Egyptians, including pious ones, worried about a possible Islamist overreach, secularists can get support. But they need to organize, develop a message, and show more respect for ordinary Egyptians, whose votes they need. It is not that Islamists do not share the blame for the present state of affairs. They have become arrogant and overly sure of themselves, but the only way to stop them is to show that they are vulnerable to competition.
The role of the United States or any other country in the Egyptian transition is limited. Transitions are always predominantly a domestic process, and Egyptians are hypernationalistic and oversensitive. Outsiders must not choose sides. They must reject both the secularist narrative of victimization and Islamist claims that elections have given them a mandate. Secularists need to be told that many of their problems are self-inflicted and that they need to stop dithering and take the task of organizing for elections more seriously. Islamists need to be reminded that an election victory is not a mandate for unlimited power; they face immense problems, particularly economic ones, and they cannot even start addressing them without broad cooperation from all political forces and a skeptical international community. With an economy in free fall, Islamists have an interest in sharing the burden and, ultimately, the blame.
And everybody, in Egypt and outside, needs to remember that transitions are always difficult prolonged affairs. Two years is barely the beginning.
Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Image: Flickr/Zeinab Mohamed. CC BY-SA 2.0.