Egypt's Arab Spring Is a Process, Not an Event

In retrospect it appears Egypt's January 2011 revolution caused a tilt toward Islamism and the June 2013 revolution has made a correction toward secular liberalism. This new opening could give the secular forces the strength to adopt a liberal position that does not exclude groups on the basis of religion.

Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh
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Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh

The term "revolutionary coup" was coined by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington in the 1960s. He used it to describe a coup by army officers who carry out a series of deep political, economic and social reforms that eventually lead to a revolution. A good example would be the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which rose to power in a military coup in July 1952 and brought about a revolution in all aspects of Egyptian life. The masses (or "the people") were not involved in this process.

But current events in Egypt have given new meaning to this term: the confluence of a military coup and a popular revolution, which together brought about a regime change. The degree of coordination between the parties has not been established, but their convergence appears not to have been a coincidence.

A military coup, even one wearing the costume of a popular revolution, cannot be seen as a proper democratic process, despite being presented as such by its instigators. Since 1952, Egypt has been under the autocratic rule of military officers who shed their uniforms: Nasser from 1954 to 1970, Anwar Sadat from 1970 to 1981 and Hosni Mubarak from 1981 to 2011.

The January 2011 revolution was supposed to transform Egypt from an autocracy to a democracy, but it became stuck at the stage in which the masses dictate the pattern of government. This is a stage that conceals a threat to democracy itself - one of the goals of the initial revolution - because it can be repeated each time the masses think the ruler or the leadership have strayed from the proper path of the revolution. Now the initiative is in the hands of the masses behind the Muslim Brotherhood, who will seek to prove by means of demonstrations that the revolution was "stolen" from them.

The revolutionary coup of June 2013 is another stage in the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring, we have come to realize, is a process, not an event. Some of the definitive conclusions offered, particularly by Israeli and Western observers, were premature. For example, the sweeping statement that the Arab Spring would be replaced by the Arab Winter must itself be replaced by more nuanced understandings, for the fates of Tunisia and Egypt are not like those of Libya, Yemen and Syria.

The chilling depictions of the Islamization of Arab regimes must also make way for more prudent opinions. It is almost a given that we will see a range of types of government, from autocracy to democracy and from religious to secular. There is unlikely to be a single model of government, as in the past; we can expect a proliferation of models, resulting from the varied history and demography of each nation.

Back to Egypt: To what extent has June's revolutionary coup brought Egypt closer to democracy? The answer depends on several variables, the first of which is the behavior of the army. Egypt is not a praetorian state, with frequent military coups. But the army has become the most important player in Egyptian politics, installing and deposing presidents, whether directly (Mohammed Morsi) or indirectly (Mubarak). While Egypt's army does not seem eager to control the reins of power itself, as long as it keeps interfering in politics genuine democracy is impossible.

Then there is the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movements. The Islamist parties are typically viewed as an undemocratic agent, but in clinging to the seat of power now Morsi cites the legitimacy of the democratic system that put him in office. Morsi's deposal has clearly engendered within these groups anger, frustration and above all distrust of a democracy that serves only certain parts of the population.

The future of Egyptian democracy thus depends on the ability of the Islamists to accept the legitimacy of the current political system, which has ejected them. This will be no simple task for the new government.

The forces of civil society that fomented the June 30 revolution, which include liberal and democratic elements, must recognize that this regime change was neither liberal, because it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood, nor democratic, because it involved a military coup.

In retrospect it appears that the January 2011 revolution caused a tilt toward Islamism and the June 2013 revolution has made a correction toward secular liberalism. This new opening could give the secular forces the strength to adopt a liberal position that does not exclude groups on the basis of religion.

Ramadan is beginning. It was once customary, during this month, for warring forces to lay down their arms to focus on fasting, prayer and good deeds. But it seems that this year, falling as it does just days after the second revolution, the holiday will be exploited by Muslim Brotherhood supporters for a display of power in the public square. The stage of mass rule is at its peak.

Elie Podeh is a professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Egyptian protesters chant slogans against President Morsi, June 30, 2013.Credit: AP

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