Two years ago, the excitement was contagious: the crowds in Tahrir Square stubbornly refused to submit or go home, unfazed and undaunted by Mubarak’s thugs. They were changing history. The Middle East was on the move. Democracy was around the corner.
The same scenes on Wednesday, after President Morsi’s ousting, left us bemused and baffled. How can passionate advocates of democracy go wild with euphoria about an army coup? However incompetent Morsi may have been, don’t they see that, by throwing him out of the job he won fair and square in elections, the generals have marched Egypt back to square one? Can’t they see the danger in leaving the Muslim Brotherhood’s millions of supporters not only bitter and abused but with a fully justified sense of righteous indignation?
This week has delivered the coup de grâce to any last lingering hopes that the Arab Spring would turn the page on the region’s chronic woes. Instead, they underline how Egypt is stuck in a historical trap. It is a post-colonial conundrum that has stymied the hopes of countries from Pakistan to Indonesia to Burma.
Everywhere the army, legatee of the departing colonial power, adopts not only the uniforms and ranks but also the sense of privilege and entitlement of the departing foreign power. It seizes and then hangs on to power because it can. Thus protected, it steadily takes charge of the economy’s commanding heights. It becomes an enclosed, wealthy, self-regarding, self-perpetuating caste. It becomes harder and harder for the generals to conceive of an acceptable alternative to their rule. They have so much to lose.
Meanwhile, opposition to army rule builds, and finds its focus in an organisation which is seen by its members as a distillation of the national essence. Inevitably, it is the sworn enemy of the military. It appeals to the masses sick of the incompetence and oppression of army rule. But this party makes the same mistake as the army: it confuses its sense of mission and righteousness with legitimacy. In addition it has nil practical experience of power. And when it finally does come to power, it tosses perks and contracts to its chums and makes elementary blunders. Then the army comes roaring back – this time with popular approval. And the cycle starts all over again.
Burma’s President Thein Sein came to power in March 2011, a month after Mubarak resigned and ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. One reason for setting reforms in motion was to stop Burma from being attacked by the Arab Spring virus. In this he has been successful: Burma seems well on the way to a transition to genuine democracy, with general elections due in 2015. But Egypt’s problems could very easily be visited on Burma, too, for all Thein Sein’s skill. Although he himself is an ex-general, the army seems more and more beyond his control. At least some of the murderous attacks on Muslims seem to have been orchestrated by the military.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was persecuted for decades, commands vast popular support and would probably win an election held tomorrow. But like Mr Morsi and his friends, Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have never run a whelk stall, never mind a country.
The grandstanding beloved of Suu Kyi’s western fans has given way to more pragmatic language since she entered parliament, and she has taken intelligent steps to try to defuse the army’s fears about her party’s intentions. But if the NLD came to power and made a mess of things, against a backdrop of unemployment and soaring food prices, can we be sure the Burmese masses would not rejoice at a return to the grim old certainties of the past?
Qatar backed another wrong horse
Al-Jazeera’s English-language coverage of the Egyptian coup was sharp and agile, with frequent live updates both from Tahrir Square and Nasr City, where Morsi’s supporters were massing. But viewers of the channel’s Arabic service had to scramble for alternatives after soldiers barged into the Cairo studio and shut down the programme, arresting the presenter, producer and guests. Qatar had backed Morsi to the hilt, pouring $8bn into Egypt in the past year, but the crisis is proving a baptism of fire for the new 33-year-old Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, who took over from his father last week and who is also chair of the broadcaster’s holding company.
And Morsi is not the only beneficiary of Qatari generosity who is looking like a bad bet. Followers of the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam, the Qatar royals have consistently backed theological kindred spirits to supplant the Arab world’s secular tyrants in Libya, Egypt and Syria. But in each theatre, a new, stable settlement is proving elusive. Morsi’s fall opens further painful questions about Qatari judgement.