Was the Arab Spring a false promise?
To those observers who would reduce social movements occurring in the Middle East and North Africa to a page in the political history of the Arab people, the Arab Spring was a failure, marked by a lost potential for democracy and secularism.
Tunisia’s prime minister stepped down after failing to reach a compromise between a technocratic government and his Islamist Ehhnahda Party. The riots sweeping the country only add to the crisis.
NATO’s so-called humanitarian intervention in Libya aided the rebels in toppling the Qaddifi regime, ending full-on war but leaving the local and regional political situations hanging in the balance. Peaceful protests in Syria have deteriorated into civil war and one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has seen in recent years.
In Egypt, nearly 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule ended after protests (and a quiet military coup) drove him from power in February 2011. His removal was followed first by military rule and then by the election of Mohamed Morsi, the conservative leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. He has since begun consolidating power and has been accused of drafting an Islamist constitution. For the country's long-time friends in Israel and the U.S., the revolution in formerly secular Egypt remains the most troubling current of the Arab Spring.
With an increasingly heavy-handed Islamist regime in power, is the country in a better position now with Morsi than it was with Mubarak? Did the struggles of 2011 amount to more of the same? Such questions, which ignore 30 years of suffering, are evident of the anxieties presented by a revolution that hasn’t quite ended.
The popular movement against Mubarak was diffuse. It included the young and the old, men and women, Coptic Christians and Muslims of all degrees of devotion, socialists, liberals, and feminists all with a single focus: end the poverty, unemployment, corruption, and police brutality that flourished under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime.
Though the largely peaceful protests were met with force, Mubarak was finally forced out in a military coup. After seizing control the military promised a quick transition to a civilian government, which, as per the results of a popular referendum, would be followed by the drafting of a constitution. The military then presented a "constitutional declaration" that exempted them from all oversight. The declaration, which was supposedly meant to preserve the secular nature of the Egyptian state, was met with protests from liberal and secular activists as well as from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The early elections ended with Morsi of the previously repressed Muslim Brotherhood taking over 50% of the vote. Despite being the first popularly elected "Islamist head of state in the Arab world", the military's constitutional declaration left the head of state toothless. Morsi would later overturn this decree.
Starting in November, Morsi began to consolidate power by passing an edict that gave him "sweeping powers" and placed his decisions above the courts. He then called for a referendum on a draft constitution that ignited weeks of protests. As he surrounded his palace with tanks and barbwire, supporters of the Brotherhood began a vigilante campaign that "recalled the tactics" of Mubarak, in which protestors were detained without cause and severely beaten. These attacks have shown no sign of relenting. The Morsi-backed constitution, which would allow clerics to intervene in legislation and deny legal protection for some minority groups, recently passed with an overwheliming 63.8% of the vote. Only 32.9% of the eligible voters actually turned out. Morsi has since continued to consolidate power, and he is not without throngs of supporters.
Despite this, pressure is mounting and the demonstrations are not limited to outside the palace in Cairo. Port Said, near the Suez Canal, has erupted in protests following the news that 21 people who participated in last year’s soccer riots would be put to death. The protests have grown increasingly violent, with more than 47 people killed and over 1,000 injured in a matter of days. Protests like these would have been unheard of before the anti-Mubarak protests, though Morsi’s subsequent call for a state of emergency in Port Said and the surrounding areas rings dangerously close to the state of emergency Mubarak decreed in 1981 that helped him hold onto power. Despite the risks, thousands continue to protest in spite of the decree.
While Morsi’s policies are pushing closer to Mubarak’s, the protests maintain the drive of the ones that brought the dictator down. Protestors claim to be continuing the fight for those who have fallen. "We owe them something... Not just a better economic situation, a government that deals with the people, that is not authoritarian or repressive," one protestor told the New York Times.
Dissent in the streets is coupled with dissent in the courts and government. A recent ruling to block Youtube on the grounds that it continued to host the "Innocence of Muslims" film that sparked riots in the region this past fall was met with opposition. A rights group has appealed on the grounds that such a ruling amounted to restrictions on free expression and the telecommunications ministry said it could not legally monitor social media sites.
As pressure increases on the streets, opposition political parties are recognizing a window of opportunity. The liberal National Salvation Front has called for a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Salafis, and the military that might work with Morsi to form a national unity government. Morsi has roundly rejected talks for such a government but, taking a cue from the anti-Mubarak protests, it is clear that the opposition has recognized the importance of drawing from all walks of Egyptian life.
Egypt is currently in a difficult position, but whatever its future may hold, the old days are gone. Open dissent in the courts and streets and unity amongst the opposition's political parties show the policies of Mubarak will not be returning without a fight. As Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution, revolution occurs in two parts: the first being liberation and the second being the constitution of a new, free regime. As Egypt has shown, the second part of the transition is much harder to achieve. But the conditions on the ground imply that the first phase may not yet be finished, and the Morsi government and constitution should not be considered the end of the Egyptian revolution.