Whatever the outcome, history will record that June 30th not only lived up to its hype but wildly exceeded it. As Egypt’s millions marched into the streets and the squares of every major city in the land on Sunday, stunned observers estimated that the human tide blackening every public space represented the largest demonstrations in history.
The most powerful grievance against the Morsi regime seem to stem from the sense of betrayal expressed repeatedly by the protesters from all walks of life. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power not through ordinary elections- their specious claim to legitimacy- but through an extraordinary revolution for which hundreds of martyrs sacrificed their lives. The Islamists who had not sacrificed for the revolution reaped its fruit, and then they proceeded to betray the sacred trust handed to them by the Egyptian people. Instead of ruling for the good of Egypt and all Egyptians, the Morsi administration in its first year in office pursued a single-minded agenda of concentrating power in the hands of Islamist cronies, sidelining the opposition, emasculating the judiciary, and ramrodding through a controversial constitution. It ignored the crashing economy and alarming insecurity that afflicted citizens at large while trying to impose a regressive, sectarian ideology that resonated with few outside of its base.
The blatant disconnect between the Morsi administration and public opinion is highlighted, during the current demonstrations, by Brotherhood supporters’ choice of green flags and bandanas with ‘Islamic’ slogans, while the opposition waved Egyptian flags. The very name, ‘Islamic Alliance’, adopted by the Islamist coalition supporting Morsi, confirms a widespread suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood are unpatriotic, an organization that puts its international ideology before its Egyptian nationalism. There have been rumors for months that the Brotherhood were planning to give over parts of the Egyptian Sinai for settlement by non-Egyptians, and that only the military stood in the way.
Today, the military gave the Morsi administration an ultimatum of forty-eight hours to get the country under control or else the Generals will intervene. Ironically, that pronouncement by General El-Sissi was greeted with cheers by the same protesters who a few months ago had demonstrated against a military takeover of power. But June 30th has been the chronicle of a coup foretold; for the past year, as some lamented the deterioration of the economic and social fabric of the country under the Morsi administration, others advised them to be patient, that further deterioration, indeed a complete breakdown, would be necessary to bring about a welcome intervention by the military and the ousting of Morsi.
Yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies, and vice versa. The anyone-but-Mubarak coalition is now the anyone-but-Morsi coalition. The irony is symptomatic of the desperate situation in which the country finds itself: in a game of shifting alliances, it is no longer civilian society against the military, or even against the loathed police, but secular Egypt against the Islamists.
As for U.S. policy, it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it supports Morsi on the principle of the inviolable legitimacy of elections, it will be seen as supporting an undemocratic, incompetent, ideological Islamist regime rejected by the majority of Egyptians, as the millions on the street attest. If it supports the ouster of the Morsi administration, it will be seen as supporting a military coup against a democratically elected president. President Obama, on tour in Africa, felt he needed to address the events himself. It is not clear whether or not his uncomfortable balancing act was helpful, as he tried to simultaneously 'press for peace' on all sides while 'supporting democracy' but 'not counting heads in a protest.'But the real significance of June 30th goes beyond Egypt, and beyond these protests. This is how the Arab Spring might play out: not a confirmation of the hoary conventional wisdom that, in the Middle East, it is either the rock of an autocratic strongman or the hard place of an Islamist takeover, but rather a protest-driven process of trial-and-error, as countries try out and reject one form of autocracy and incompetence after another. Perhaps, as the joke making the round in Egypt these days goes, the Muslim Brotherhood are like the measles, you have to catch it once to never get it again. In the long run, the convulsive process might actually lead to a democratic compromise on a reasonably competent form of governance, but it will be, undeniably, a long ordeal.