The protests sweeping through Egypt are, most immediately, about President Morsi’s executive grab for power. Under the justification of breaking the deadlock that has complicated Egypt’s transition to democracy, Morsi issued seven decrees giving him unprecedentedly broad power — the most troubling of which allows him to take any steps he deems necessary to preserve the interests of the revolution and national security.
Less immediately, though, the protests are about a rift in the Egyptian government that makes the reforms built on them especially shaky. The cleavage between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and secular and Christian groups has become more pronounced as support has crumbled for the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly and the Constitution it has been drafting.
The disagreements, and the resignation of non-Islamist groups from the assembly, have opened it to the criticism of the courts, which have already excluded Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians from serving in the Constituent Assembly it had once sought to dominate. President Morsi seems to have been acting on fear of further actions taken by the courts to weaken his party’s power: one decree declares the court unable to abrogate any of the president’s executive orders since June 30, 2012, and another blocks any judicial authority from dissolving the Constituent Assembly or upper house of the Parliament.
Any student of standard high school history curriculum knows the dangers of emergency power grabs — the Third Reich was one such result. As progress toward democratic governance falters in Egypt, and as thousands gather in Tahrir Square as they did in the beginning of 2011, it seems at first that history is repeating itself in a dizzyingly fast loop. For some, though, who eyed all of the post-revolutionary Islamist governments warily, these protests could be the first sign of real change; the first reversal of a strange historical trend in which protections of rights and freedoms took a back seat to the resurgence of religious power.
To critics, the Arab Spring seemed to be ushering in an anything-but-new age of Islamist-dominated governments and suppression of women and minorities. American support for the new Egyptian government didn’t falter, even as a regressive constitution was drafted and women, secular groups, and Christians boycotted or resigned from legislative bodies. We had backed ourselves into a corner with expressing unqualified support for any kind of democracy over dictatorship. If we came out and disapproved now, it would too obviously expose our agenda for what it usually is: protection of our own interests masquerading as a Good Samaritan commitment to democracy in all corners of the globe.
But these critics were trying their best not to count on the dim hope that the new Islamist position of power would actually threaten their broad support. Anyone had to admit that in a region plagued with corruption and the Western bolstering of dictators, the most legitimate anti-Western alternative would also be the most electable. In Egypt, this alternative was the Muslim Brotherhood, driven underground by the government over the past half-century. As Western countries, including the U.S., became complicit in the atrocious anti-democratic repression undertaken by the governments they supported ironically in the name of democracy, sidelined groups like the Muslim Brotherhood harnessed anti-authoritarian and anti-Western sentiment and turned it into support for an Islamist government.
But this popular support was contingent on the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood would be less given to corrupt foreign influences because of its commitment to tradition and the Egyptian people. It did not enter into the narrative that the temptation of Western money and support would find its way to slither into the politics of Egypt no matter what party the president is from. If a Muslim Brotherhood president is exposed to be as corrupt and dictatorial as his ousted predecessor, the Middle East’s slide toward a more conservative Islamist government may finally be reversed. If the protests against Morsi continue, it could be that the curtain has fallen on the hope that an Islamist government will redeem the wrongs of centuries of Western meddling.
Of course, if the Muslim Brotherhood is experiencing its first wave of diminished popular support, there are even bigger battles to be fought. There is a downside to the secular hopes: the dissatisfaction with Morsi could give way to not only the more moderate factions, but also to the ultraconservative Salafis. The transition of power could be peaceful and democratic via the next election, or it could be through a series of demonstrations like those at the beginning of 2011. The latter would seem unlikely, but if Morsi’s power grabs continue, it seems just as unlikely that the revolutionaries would sit back and let it happen.
The instability is likely to continue in Egypt, but it should not be cause for alarm only — it could also be a struggle paving the way for a viable secular leadership. It is a change the West should be welcoming. This path may be longer and rougher than the one offered by a stable Morsi presidency, but it will also lead to a more inclusive, more just, and more democratic Egypt.