The fear of uncertainty

Fear is as thick as tear gas in Cairo’s streets this week. Uncertainty is the only thing which everyone which everyone can agree on. Indeed, there is even debate about whether we have or haven’t witnessed a military coup.

Is a coup a coup when the citizenry support the military’s action? Of course it is; the only legitimate method of replacing one administration with another is a free and fair election. A military intervention is about as far from this as you could possibly get, although they are trying to soften the edges by installing the head of the constitutional court as ‘interim’ president. No one, including the army, seems to have any idea how long such an interim will last, or what will come afterwards. New elections have been hinted at, but it is hard to tell if they will ever happen – the last time Egypt’s army staged a coup it held on to power for twenty-six years. If elections did take place, what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood won, as is well within the realm of possibility given the huge demonstrations in favour of the deposed president? One doubts that a second Morsi would be allowed to take power, and that would cause further chaos. Speaking of Morsi, where is he and what does the army plan to do with him? There are many questions, and possible answers are not cheering. Belief in the army’s good intentions faded with the sound of bullets being used on protesters.

Like everything, this story is multifaceted. The coup-or-not-a-coup debate is founded on the fact that Morsi’s government was far from democratic. Being elected is not enough to bestow legitimacy on an administration, especially when the president interferes with judicial independence and steers the direction of the constituent assembly as it tries – and fails – to write a decent constitution. Hopefully, this process can be restarted and a new document written to replace the shambolic constitution ratified last year – although this is perhaps too optimistic. It seems, then, that in Egypt the choices offered to the people are equally ugly – rule by an autocratic-but-elected Islamist or by an illegitimate and brutal army. They will not be envied the decision.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Doubts on democracy

So the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi has beaten Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt’s Presidential elections. After decades of being forced underground during the years of the old regime, the Brothers have gained power in the first democratic elections in Egypt’s history. This is, obviously, a victory for freedom – the people gathered in Cairo’s now-infamous Tahrir Square clearly see it as such.

Elsewhere people will worry. The West will instinctively find it difficult to accept an Islamist government, even as it cheers the advent of democracy. But the West is irrelevant in this situation. The real worrying will be done by Egypt’s liberals, women and – particularly – its sizable Coptic Christian minority. The Brothers have promised to form a unity coalition with such liberals and has sworn to honour the rights of women and minorities – but, then again, they promised not to contest the election at all. Promises, it seems, can be broken.

What’s striking here is that many of those who are terrified of the Brothers had to vote for them. People were so mistrusting of Shafiq – the old regime’s last Prime Minister – that they ignored their fears and did the unthinkable. These are the people whose principles were so strong that they risked their lives last February to bring down President Mubarak, it is no wonder they refused to vote for his number two. They may hope, as I still do, that the burden of responsibility will force the Brothers to be more liberal than they were when an underground outfit.

The choice on offer – a Brother or an army man – is an indictment of the progress made since those jubilant days. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over governance after Mr Mubarak’s fall has been extremely reluctant to return to its barracks after decades of controlling civilian life. It postponed the elections several times, and held back results with no explanation. In the build up to the announcement of Mr Morsi’s victory, the SCAF has issued decrees limiting the President’s powers and entrenching their own. This does not bode well – and it is still not certain that the ruling generals will retire peacefully. Somehow, I doubt they will. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, we may witness an ‘Arab spring 2.0’ – this time of a more bloody nature.

Even if the SCAF does bow out gracefully, Egypt is simply a mess. A constitution is yet to be written, while the Brotherhood-dominated constitunal assembly acts as a Parliament instead. No one knows what powers the new President will have, which is quite a big problem for the man himself. Democracy is a fragile thing – and, with all the uncertainties, it may be about to be dropped.

Here’s hoping everyone sticks to their promises.