It would be perverse if the January 2011 revolution paved the way for something worse than what it sought to replace. But that is where Egypt is headed. Under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed, but the repression was never total. The Brotherhood, as the country’s largest opposition force, was allowed room to operate, to contest elections, and to have seats in parliament. Mubarak may have been a dictator, but he was no radical.
The current military government is much more ambitious, with its aim to dismantle the Brotherhood and destroy it as a political force. Unlike Mubarak, the generals have tapped into real, popular anger against the Brotherhood – after its many failures in power – and helped nurture that anger into something ugly and visceral. It’s no surprise when armies use force. That’s what armies do. But it is scary to see ordinary Egyptians, “liberal” political parties and much of the country’s media class cheering it on so enthusiastically.
Democratic transitions, even in the best of circumstances, are uneven, painful affairs. But it no longer makes much sense to say that Egypt is in such a transition. Even in the unlikely event that political violence somehow ceases, the changes ushered in by the July 3 military coup and its aftermath will be exceedingly difficult to reverse. The army’s interventionist role in politics has become entrenched. Rather than at least pretending to rise above politics, the military and other state bodies have become explicitly partisan institutions. This will only exacerbate societal conflict in a deeply polarized country. Continuous civil conflict, in turn, will be used to justify permanent war against an array of internal and foreign enemies, both real and imagined.
There is no need to be surprised. This is what military coups look like. The symbolism, of course, is especially striking. Egypt is the most populous Arab country and a bellwether for the region. There was a time when observers would say banal, hopeful things like “Egypt can show the way toward a new democratic Middle East.” But that was a different time.