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Egypt - Democracy recedes

Now that the military has overthrown President Mohammed Morsi in what seems to be – for the moment at least  – a bloodless and popular coup, is the Arab Spring over? Democracy has certainly been undermined and though the military and its secular liberal backers insist that there will be early elections, one thing is clear: the military will be the ultimate arbiter in Egyptian politics for a very long time.

Morsi’s critics will argue that the Arab Spring in Egypt was undermined the moment the Muslim Brotherhood made a bid for power after the revolution in 2011, after initially refusing to participate in the elections.

What followed was a year of incompetence and incipient autocracy. Morsi and his party were accused of pursuing an agenda of Islamising and rushing through a divisive constitution, while failing to deliver on promises to improve the country’s dire economic conditions. He became increasingly authoritarian as evidenced by the arrest and persecution of journalists.

When there was growing opposition to the Brotherhood, activists unwisely characterised the disagreement as a war between Islam and non-Islam. In sum, Morsi was accused of governing in the interests of the Brotherhood, not the Egyptian people.

Brotherhood supporters will claim that President Morsi inherited a bankrupt country and a dysfunctional political system, where authoritarianism was deeply embedded.

Indeed, when asked about the massive protests against Morsi, a Brotherhood spokesperson quipped that they showed the healthy underpinnings of democracy under Morsi’s rule. Pro-Morsi supporters in-turn attacked the opposition for refusing to respond to their  calls for dialogue and reconciliation.

It would seem that, after some 80 years in opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood has ruined its once-in-a-life-time chance to govern, for the time being at least. The Muslim Brotherhood will now revert to type as an opposition movement.

The test for the Brotherhood will now be how it deals with the new regime. Will its supporters be too restless to uphold the decades-long movement-policy of non-violent opposition?

There is a fear that we will witness the violence of 1990s Algeria when Islamists there were denied their right to govern. Part of the answer will lie in whether the movement feels the military too has returned the state to pre-2011, if not 1960s Egypt. There are still veteran Brotherhood members alive who remember the brutal days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. While immensely popular, commanding crowds similar in size to those we witness in Tahrir today, President Nasser routinely killed and tortured Brotherhood members.

Of course, such fears may be overstated. But history was certainly repeating itself last night when Brotherhood members and journalists were arrested, and Al-Jazeera’s Egypt service taken off air.

Another part of the answer will lie with the new power-brokers, who in many ways were part of Egypt’s traditional political elite. Flanked behind army chief General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi as he deposed Morsi were liberal opposition leaders, Muslim and Christian religious leaders and figures from civil society: all traditionally reticent, if not hostile, to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The movement was long marginalised by Egypt’s political elites. The sight of Egypt’s generals on television being flanked by non-Brotherhood politicians and religious leaders symbolises the Brotherhood’s return to their former position.

There is a difference this time, though. Liberals in the anti-Morsi movement have been joined by newcomers, the Salafist Al-Nour, once an ally of the Brotherhood; a party said to take its funding from Saudi Arabia which has been a staunch opponent of the Arab Spring.

It is too early to tell what this means for Egypt. At worst the country has just witnessed the premature death of democracy, at best it has been severely damaged. There seems to be extreme political polarisation which shows zero signs of being bridged for now.

The beneficiaries of the current coup must know the risks to their own legitimacy if they leave the Brotherhood out of the transition process. However, if they are included and elections are held, the Brotherhood may well be re-elected, thanks to an equally inept, if not fragmented opposition.

Since the military has taken such a decisive role, there will be a large cloud over the democratic robustness of the Arab Spring. Already, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed satisfaction with recent developments in Cairo, while beleaguered President Assad of Syria has stated that the overthrow signals the end of ‘political Islam’.

For now at least, the democratic tide of the Arab Spring seems to have receded.

Saqeb Mueen is director of New Media at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). Saqeb is also editor of RUSI.org

This article first appears as a blog for Prospect magazine