The rising in Tahrir Square two years ago electrified the world and achieved the impossible: forcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the harsh and corrupt dictator of Egypt for the prior 30 years. What inspired the world was the spontaneous spirit of unity, a movement guided by exhilarating visions of democracy and freedom and hope, generating a new kind of populism that dispensed with ideology and leaders, a sense that the people of Egypt had acted creatively and bravely to recover their country from the clutches of neoliberal predators and their domestic collaborators. Even the armed forces had seemed mainly to welcome these developments, partly because of their own fears that Mubarak harbored dynastic dreams. Although the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia preceded Tahrir Square, it was the developments in Egypt that made it plausible back in 2011 to speak about and to dream of the ‘Arab Spring.’
A year later in 2012 there was still some afterglow from the drama of Tahrir Square, but there were also growing signs of disunity. It was becoming clear that Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Salafis, enjoyed the benefits of grassroots organizing and support, which translated into electoral dominance. It was also evident that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that was providing governmental authority was not clearly committed to the values and practices of constitutional democracy and human rights. For many Egyptians, SCAF was becoming a threat of new structure of governance describable as ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak.’ Labor unions, minorities, and special interest groups were all seeking to put forward their grievances. There was a growing concern in some economic sectors that the new situation was unable to revive confidence and trust, creating a kind of backlash, ‘nothing has changed,’ and ‘we are worse off than when the Mubarak regime was in power.’ At least, before the rising of 2011, tourists came, and shop owners in the cities flourished. After one year, the excitement had died down, and there were severe worries about political leadership, human rights, and economic revival, and many of those that had been in the front lines of the challenge to Mubarak were no longer politically active and visible, or were now confronting the Morsi government.
On this second anniversary the situation has definitely deteriorated. Tahrir Square and other city centers around the country are increasingly sites of struggle between the governing Islamic Brotherhood and discontented liberal, secular, and minority forces. On this day of anniversary early reports indicate that there were clashes in many cities throughout the country, which resulted in at least one death and 186 reported injuries. Mohammed Morsi has pleaded for unity, but his leadership has been widely perceived by his adversaries as pushing the country in the direction of Islamism, which is serving as the ideological vehicle for the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is also a growing atmosphere of polarization in which it has become express policy that for the anti-Morsi opposition nothing less than the removal of Morsi from the presidency of Egypt will quiet their opposition. There are also a variety of hostile claims that the proposed new Egyptian Constitution embodies a deal with the armed forces, which jeopardizes democracy by ensuring SCAF’s economic private sector interests and gives it wide ranging powers to interfere in the political life of the country without even providing mechanisms to guard accountability to the constitution.
Not all Egyptians buy into the politics of polarization. There are a few, too few, who stand above the fray, pointing to the exaggerations on both the Morsi and the opposition side. Their contention is that Morsi is implementing a generally inclusive constitutional scheme under difficult economic circumstances and that the secularists have reason for concern about Islamic influence and ambitions, but not for seeking to produce chaos in the country by challenging after the fact outcomes of democratic elections. The damage done by this polarization is to strengthen extremists on both sides, and to render problematic prospects for either humane governance or economic recovery. Unfortunately, the intensification of polarization in recent months is approaching a point of no return, which inevitably casts a dark cloud over the future of Egypt.
There are some younger activists who are more hopeful, partly because they are looking away from Tahrir Square, and find encouraging a variety of local developments throughout the country. These developments take the form of labor and environmental activism, the organization of local markets, and a lowering of expectations with respect to the central government in Cairo. In effect, this perspective sees a trend toward the invention of democratization-from-below that is working toward a just and fair society outside the conventional framings of political parties and elections. Such populism in one sense keeps the flame of Tahrir Square burning, but not on the square itself, which has been taken over by secular/Islamist ugly encounters.
At this point in Egypt’s evolution, there are plenty of reasons for concern, but also for patience. It may be that the opposition forces will tire of confrontation and that the governing authorities will moderate their policies in ways that credibly heed the promise of inclusivity. Let us hope that some of these reasons for worry will no longer be present a year hence when the third anniversary of the 2011 rising will be celebrated. It is already clear that this rising did not produce a ‘revolution,’ but it is not yet evident whether what is emerging in Egypt can be welcomed as fundamental ‘reform’ of state/society, civilian/military, and public sector/private sector relations, a program of reform that protects and promotes human rights, including economic, social, and cultural, as well as political and civil rights. For now, it is best for people of good will to withhold judgment, and wish the people of Egypt success in their ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, dignity, and substantive democracy (that is, rights and justice, as well as the procedures of elections and institutions).