Egypt’s three revolutions
If you’re looking for any silver lining in what is happening in Egypt today, I suggest you go up 30,000 feet and look down. From that distance, the events in Egypt over the past two and a half years almost make sense. Egypt has actually had three revolutions since early 2011, and when you add them all up, you can discern a message about what a majority of Egyptians are seeking.
The first revolution was the Egyptian people and the Egyptian military toppling President Hosni Mubarak and installing the former defense minister, the aging Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, as the de facto head of state. Tantawi and his colleagues proved utterly incompetent in running the nation and were replaced, via a revolutionary election, by the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, led by President Mohammed Morsi. He quickly tried to consolidate power by decapitating the military and installing Brotherhood sympathizers in important positions. His autocratic, noninclusive style and failed economic leadership frightened the Egyptian center, which teamed up last month with a new generation of military officers for a third revolution to oust Morsi and the Brotherhood.
To put it all in simpler terms: Egypt’s first revolution was to get rid of the dead hand, the second revolution was to get rid of the deadheads and the third revolution was to escape from the dead end.
The first revolution happened because a large number of mostly non-Islamist Egyptian youths became fed up with the suffocating dead hand of the Mubarak era — a hand so dead that way too many young Egyptians felt they were living in a rigged system, where they had no chance of realizing their full potential, under a leader with no vision. After some 30 years of Mubarak’s rule and some $30 billion in American aid, roughly one-third of Egyptians still could not read or write.
The generals who replaced Mubarak, though, were deadheads not up to governing — so dead that many liberal Egyptians were ready to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi over a former Mubarak-era general in the June 2012 election. But Morsi proved more interested in consolidating the Brotherhood’s grip on government rather than governing himself, and he drove Egypt into a dead end — so dead that Egyptians took to the streets on June 30 and virtually begged the military to oust Morsi.
Add it all up and there is a message from the Egyptian majority: No more dead hands; we want a government that aspires to make Egypt the vanguard of the Arab world again. No more deadheads; we want a government that is run by competent people who can restore order and jobs. And no more dead ends; we want a government that will be inclusive and respect the fact that two-thirds of Egyptians are not Islamists and, though many are pious Muslims, they don’t want to live in anything close to a theocracy.
It is difficult to exaggerate how much the economy and law and order had deteriorated under Morsi. So many Egyptians were feeling insecure that there was a run on police dogs! So many tour guides were out of work that tourists were warned to avoid the Pyramids because desperate camel drivers and postcard-sellers would swarm them. A poll this week by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research found that 71 percent of Egyptians were “unsympathetic with pro-Morsi protests.”
Yes, it would have been much better had Morsi been voted out of office. But what is done is done. We need to make the best of it. The right thing for President Obama to be doing now is not only to ignore calls for cutting off economic aid to Egypt — on grounds that the last revolution amounted to a military coup. We should be trying to get everyone in the world to help this new Egyptian government succeed.
Not surprisingly, people are worried that Egypt’s military could stay in power indefinitely. It’s a danger, but I am less worried about that. The Egyptian people have been empowered. A majority of Egyptians have — three times now since 2011 — called a halt to their government’s going down the wrong path.
I am worried about something else: Egyptians defining the right path and getting a majority to follow that path. That is an entirely different kind of challenge, and I am not sure Egypt can ever get to that level of consensus. But this government offers the best hope for that. It has good people in important positions, like finance and foreign affairs. It is rightly focused on a fair constitution and sustainable economic reform. Its job will be much easier if the Muslim Brotherhood can be reintegrated into politics, and its war with the military halted. But the Brotherhood also needs to accept that it messed up — badly — and that it needs to re-earn the trust of the people.
This is no time for America to be punishing Egyptians or demanding quick elections. Our job is to help the new government maximize the number of good economic decisions it makes, while steadily pressuring it to become more inclusive and making it possible for multiple political parties to form. If that happens, Egypt will have a proper foundation to hold democratic elections again. If it doesn’t happen, no number of elections will save it.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.