Tahrir Square Redux: A Tipping Point for Democracy in Egypt?

Mona Eltahawy vs. Madeleine Albright on the future of the Arab Spring in the Middle East's most populous country
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Anti-Morsi protesters chant and set off fireworks during a mass-demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, June 2013. (Amr Abdallah/Reuters)

As her fellow citizens take to the streets once again -- two-and-a-half years after the January 25 Revolution and a year after President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power -- the prominent Egyptian-American democracy activist Mona Eltahawy believes that her country is poised, finally, for real liberal political transformation.

"I think one of the best ways to summarize it is through one of the banners being held through the streets of Cairo as people marched on Heliopolis Palace," Eltahawy said at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday. "And that banner said, 'With Islam, Against the Muslim Brotherhood.' Of course, Eltahawy doesn't presume that fidelity to Islam would ever be the basis for political solidarity among a liberal Egyptian opposition. To the contrary -- particularly given Egypt's massive Coptic Christian population, and particularly given that the object of political solidarity among the Egyptian political opposition is, as she sees it, ultimately not just the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood but the establishment of a secular political culture and a genuine transition to democracy.

The reason Morsi became Egypt's president at all, Eltahawy said, "is because of the false choice we were given, which was: a religious fundamentalist president or a candidate from the military junta. So I have lots of friends who, with great difficulty, voted for Morsi because they didn't want the junta guy."

If Egyptians elected Morsi based on a "false choice" a year ago, why does Eltahawy believe that they want more than to throw the bum out today? Why does she believe that Egyptians want to decisively reject the Muslim Brotherhood's political Islamism altogether? "I actually think it's the best thing possible that the Muslim Brotherhood are now in government in Egypt," Eltahawy said, "because they've embarrassed themselves for the terrible job of governing that they've done in a way that none of us could have done; they've done us a huge favor."

The Muslim Brotherhood has, in other words, accelerated both its political implosion and the comprehensive discrediting of its political ideology -- at the cost to the Egyptian people of having had to endure a year of super-dreadful governance:

So what we're now doing is, we're telling them, "You can't use this Islam card anymore." When I was a journalist in Cairo in the 1990s, we would ask them, "What do you represent?" Because they would love to play the victim: "Mubarak imprisons us! Mubarak tortures us!" We would say, "But what's your platform?" They would say, "Islam is the solution!" And that is nonsense. Islam is not the solution. The solution is to get people jobs. The solution is to make sure that cars are not lining up outside gas stations for hours. The solution is to make sure that torture under the Muslim Brotherhood government is [understood to be] just as bad as torture under Mubarak and the junta.

If Eltahawy is right, what's happening on the streets of Cairo now will extend into a full-on second Egyptian revolution -- which she thinks is exactly what Egypt needs: "When Muslims go to vote, ... we don't want empty slogans, like 'Islam is the solution.' We want: 'I'm going to give your son or daughter a job. I'm going to make this street safe. I'm going to reform the [security forces], which broke my arms and sexually assaulted me and killed hundreds and thousands of Egyptians throughout decades of dictatorship,'" she said. "... as difficult as it is for me as an Egyptian to watch Egypt on the so-called 'brink,' this is a great moment for us to finally move beyond dictatorship and the military and Islamists."

For former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, however, there is still no obvious trajectory from these demonstrations to the kind of effective institutional governance Eltahawy is talking about. "Tahrir Square is a leaderless movement," Albright said, responding to Eltahawy in Aspen yesterday. "And that is part of the problem. The leaders who are there, theoretically ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, are not doing the job, for whatever reason."

The Egyptian opposition isn't ready to transform Egyptian politics, Albright elaborated, because it's not yet presenting a serious political alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood; and (conspicuously, Albright's critique of the opposition parallels Eltahawy's of the Muslim brotherhood here) it's not yet prepared to govern:

It's very hard to argue with anything that Mona has said. But the truth is that people don't want to live in a completely unstable society. This is the problem that we have. And this happened in a number of revolutions: There are the revolutionary leaders, who want to move forward, and then there are ordinary people who do not know how to get bread, who can't send their children to school, who just plead for some kind of order and organization. And so the thing that we have to do is to pull these two concepts together -- of having people who are dynamic and are leaders in this, and at the same time trying to develop the institutions that allow for some kind of stable society. We cannot live with only people in the streets -- it does not work.

But then, Eltahawy isn't arguing that we can live with only people in the streets. She's arguing that there's not a sustainable social basis for the Muslim Brotherhood and the kind of political Islamism it represents to remain legitimate. The real contrast here isn't that Albright believes in political order and Eltahawy believes in social upheaval; it's that Albright believes the political transformation of Egyptian society will depend almost entirely on leadership from the top down, and Eltahawy believes Egypt's new social movements can generate and condition that leadership from the bottom up.

Neither, meanwhile, seems to know any better than we do how Islamists will respond to a loss of political power or how the military will respond to anything.

Stay tuned.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia. … Also: jjgould.com.

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