In 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flocked to the streets of Cairo demanding an end to the regime’s brutality, eventually leading to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak, little did they know that, three years later, the same military regime would be revived only with a younger, more media-savvy face. The young activists who led the revolution may have found it bitterly ironic that, after such unprecedented popular movement, some would be sitting in the very prison where the ailing Mubarak they helped oust will most certainly spend his last days. In light of the multiplication of trials against pro-democracy activists and journalists, along with the banning of the April 6 Youth Movement, which spearheaded the revolution, the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, officially announced on June 3, brings little hope for democracy in the North African country.
Egypt’s new president demonstrated little taste for democracy during election season, withholding his political platform for “national security reasons” and notably absent from debates and even his own campaign. As Egypt’s former chief of staff and newly-elected president, al-Sisi is now part of the country’s long line of military commanders who reached the supreme office, briefly interrupted by the short mandate granted to Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi. Morsi is now also detained and facing a raft of trials based on accusations of espionage, conspiring to commit terrorist acts, escaping from prison, and insulting the judiciary, among others. While the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continued relentlessly with the sentencing of more than5000 of its members to death, it also extended to Egypt’s fragile liberal groups. In the framework of a bill approved in November 2013 that “regulates” demonstrations, Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel, and Ahmed Douma, three prominent figures from the 2011 revolution, were arrested for staging illegal protests and sentenced to three years in jail.
For liberal and revolutionary groups there is indeed a cruel irony in the judiciary’s unwillingness to distinguish between those responsible for initiating the revolution and those who opposed it. Their future appears even grimmer, as the voice of pro-democracy groups seems doomed to be quieted little by little in the coming months. In between the military’s widening crackdown against the opposition, and the increasingly violent and near daily wave of pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, liberal groups are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rising violence and deepening rift between the Brotherhood and the military makes it progressively difficult for moderate voices to be heard above this uproar. Who cares about moderates when the security forces’ violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in turns fuels the extremism of some of the Brotherhood’s fringe elements ? Who is concerned about those holding the middle ground when violence is witnessed on a daily basis in the streets of Cairo? The spiraling violence has made the voice of the liberals inaudible.
Beyond this growing polarization, violent methods used against Muslim Brotherhood protests has served the anti-democratic rhetoric of Egypt’s real “terrorist” groups, such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which have carried out waves of attacks against security forces. Terror groups stated long before the Brotherhood’s fall that democracy was incompatible with Islam, a concept bolstered by Morsi’s ouster. Following the military coup that caused his ouster, al-Qaeda core’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, argued that “[w]hat happened [in Egypt] is the greatest proof of the failure of taking the democratic path to reach power in Islam”. These groups will surely seek to similarly depict al-Sisi’s victory as another proof of this failure.
True democracy and the rise of liberal political groups may in fact have been the only solution to this vicious cycle. Yet, on the list of priorities, democratic expectations have fallen behind the need to tackle daily violence in the streets of Cairo and the country’s shadowy jihadist insurgency, along with the necessity to resolve the vast economic problems. In the minds of most Egyptians, who now largely seek stability, the pro-democracy activists have returned to what they were before the revolution: A vain and idealistic movement with unrealistic, if not childish expectations. The renunciation of such expectations in a bid for “stability” could nonetheless prove dangerous and, in the process, the Egyptian people risk ending up losing both their liberty and security.