Revolution gone awry

What has happened to the Egyptian revolution? From the heady days of early 2011, when Egyptians got rid of a hated dictator with dignity and pride, they have lurched from crisis to crisis.

Let’s not forget what the revolution was about. The secular liberals who spearheaded the Tahrir Square protests last year struck a chord with ordinary Egyptians who were fed up with the corruption and nepotism of the country’s elite, and with everyday police brutality. The big vote for Islamists in the parliamentary election was a concrete demonstration of their faith in the Muslim Brotherhood, the previously banned movement that Egyptians had come to know and trust over decades of social welfare programs.

No wonder people were frustrated when the chief lieutenants and senior police officials of the Mubarak regime, on trial with him in Cairo, got off scot-free last week. Ousted president Hosni Mubarak received a life sentence for his role in the deaths of almost 850 demonstrators, but he and his sons were cleared of corruption charges. Conspiracy theorists saw evidence of the persistence of the “deep state,” the security apparatus and related bureaucracy whose structures have remained unchallenged since the revolution.

The latest protests in Tahrir square, prompted by the trial verdicts, are likely to benefit Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who will run against Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, in the second round of the presidential elections on June 16 and 17. The stark choice for voters will be between the two contrasting faces of Egyptian society: the secular representative of the ancien régime, and the Islamist.

Morsi is often described as a conservative, but when I met him a few years ago in Cairo he struck me as a typical example of the pragmatic and sophisticated brand of brothers that contributed to the movement’s popularity. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood comes from the ranks of professional Egyptians. Morsi might not be Mr. Charisma, but at least he had a sense of humor: I recall that his cellphone had an Islamic ringtone of “All praise to Allah.”

What will change if he becomes president? On the surface, not much. The Brotherhood has already moved to reassure Egypt’s allies that the peace treaty with Israel is secure. But there are two big reasons for concern. One is the issue of trust. How can the Brotherhood be trusted when it pledged it would not field a presidential candidate, only to change its mind? Earlier, the movement reversed a decision not to dominate parliament.

This leads straight to the issue of Egyptian democracy. Islamist parties are not known for their political tolerance, and Egypt has a history of authoritarian rule dating back to the pharoahs. Where will the checks and balances be if the Islamists control both the parliament and presidency? Egyptians say that if they don’t like how the Brotherhood behaves in office, they can always get rid of it in the next election. But will the first victim of its political success be democracy itself?

Looking back over the last 18 months, I would not subscribe to the view that Egypt has experienced a military coup. The generals took over reluctantly. They have stumbled through a kind of two-step with citizens who are ready to surge back into Tahrir Square to obtain political concessions but who have failed to unite effectively to dismantle the former regime.

So what we have now is a mess. This is no way to run a country whose people yearn for order and stability. Stop the revolution, I want to get off.

Anne Penketh is former diplomatic editor of The Independent and a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. She is Washington Program Director of the British American Security Information Council. Follow her on Twitter at @annepenketh.