Listen to this article
Amid the epic remobilisation of millions of Egyptians against their government last Sunday, there was one of those little signals that elude precise interpretation. As vast crowds reassembled in Tahrir Square to demand the departure of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s elected Islamist president, with all the venom they deployed to bring down Hosni Mubarak’s army-backed dictatorship in 2011, something remarkable happened.
Army helicopters hovered over the square, dropping Egyptian flags, to wild cheers and celebratory fireworks from the ostensibly liberal and leftist crowd below. The army claimed it was stimulating patriotism at a time of national crisis. It looked as though it was flirting with the masses, revealing a tantalising bit of military ankle.
The ultimatum on Monday evening from army chief of staff General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, giving Mr Morsi 48 hours to bridge the deadly chasm of hostility with his opponents, was still more revealing. And then the helicopters were back, streaming the national flag across a Technicolor Cairo sunset.
It seems that Egypt, however revolutionary its temper, cannot escape the generals, like men on horseback galloping providentially to its rescue. And as Egypt goes, so goes the region, which these men of providence have left in the debris of ideological bankruptcy and the poverty of an institutional vacuum. That story begins in Egypt, where the British colonial authorities aborted the normal gestation of constitutional politics, just as the French empire did in greater Syria.
For many, the antidote seemed to be the pan-Arab ideology of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which rolled in intoxicating waves across Egypt, Iraq and Syria in the 1950s and 1960s. But pan-Arabism masked the will to power of new national elites, seducing regional opinion into an ideological wild goose chase. These “revolutions” were vulgar coups d’état, accompanied by enough directed social upheaval to stifle the emergence of a national bourgeoisie and its historic accompaniment, representative democracy. What the Arabs got instead was the army, as both the main social escalator and principal national institution.
But there is nothing intrinsically Arab about Nasserists, Ba’athists, and other would-be Bonapartes – as Latin American caudillos and Africa’s Big Men can attest.
Iran, for instance, where a genuine revolution installed the Islamic Republic in 1979, grew a dense thicket of institutions. Clusters of clerics jostle cheek by scowling jowl with parliament and vet candidates for election. But as the theocrats struggle to stifle the proto-democracy of these republican bodies, the decisive institution has become the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his neo-Islamist ruling party have taken away the political power but not the privileges of the military, long the decisive institution of Ataturk’s republic. But the demise of the generals has revealed the impotence of the secular politicians they hid behind. The vast recent protests respond to its institutional poverty as well as Mr Erdogan’s authoritarianism, which is part of Turkey’s winner-takes-all culture of seizing and packing all institutions.
Mr Morsi, not even the Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice for president, seemed to be following a Turkish script when, after winning election a year ago, he fired top generals who had been running the country since Mubarak’s fall. But that cemented an alliance with the new leaders of the army, whose extensive privileges are embedded in the Islamist-tinged constitution bulldozed through last autumn.
Liberals opposed to Mr Morsi, who has proved accountable more to the power-hungry Brotherhood than Egyptian citizens, would do well to note the fickle loyalties of the generals to anyone but themselves.
The National Salvation Front, the loose coalition of liberal, leftist and secular forces that divides its time between egging on the army and the demonstrators, says it will negotiate with the army but not the government. The “Revolutionary Communique Number 1” the NSF issued, hailing the “downfall of the regime of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood”, is a pastiche of political infantilism. There is no such thing as a liberal coup d’état.
Democracy, not just secular politics, is hard work. The US and its European allies are not in the position they should be to point that out. They did not just abort Arab democracy. They have been bankrolling Arab despots for decades. America’s annual $1.3bn stipend to the Egyptian army has been sacrosanct since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.
That old order prevented mainstream political expression but, because it could not suppress the mosque, manufactured Islamists. The uniformed men of providence who created this problem will not be its solution. The inability of the Muslim Brothers to emerge from the catacombs of the national security state is no excuse for their opponents – who recent polls say could command greater popular support than the Islamists – to fling themselves into military arms. Democracy needs democrats, not a deus ex machina in uniform.
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on Egypt after Morsi when a new story is published