Grant Egypt its redeeming consolations: it is neither Algeria, nor Syria. The terror that came to Algeria in the 1990s, a scorched earth war between Le Pouvoir (The Power Structure) and the Islamists which took a toll of no less than 200,000 lives is unlikely to be visited on Egypt. It had been a cruel decade in Algeria – the “eradicationists” of the regime pitted against unyielding Islamists who had prevailed at the ballot box only to see the generals bring to an end the whole specter of elections and constitutionalism. And no fevered imagination could see the sectarianism and the horrors of Syria play out in Egypt. It is not pretty in Egypt, some fifty supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed in a confrontation with the army on July 8, but there is no Homs in Egypt, and the Air Force had not inflicted death and ruin on Alexandria akin to what the Syrian MIGs had done to Aleppo. The stereotype of an orderly country on the banks of the Nile where the army is made up of sons of the land of Egypt is not without its merit. General Abdul Fattah el-Sissi, the coup maker who upended the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, bears no resemblance to the faceless generals of Algeria, or the Alawi commanders in Syria fighting a brutal religious war.
But consolations can betray. There is a great schism in Egypt, and the national mood is foul. For all its vaunted stability – the hydraulic society on the banks of a life-saving river – Egypt has been perennially prone to violent shifts of mood and opinion. In the three decades between the declaration of its independence in 1923 and the coup d’état that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, the place was a playground for all kinds of ideological movements. Constitutionalists, genuine Fascists inspired by the examples of Italy and Germany, devoted Communists, and the Muslim Brotherhood did battle over power and the country’s direction. Pick up the work of the great Cairene, the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and you are treated to an unsparing portrait of a country in distress. The crisis of modern Egypt can be seen in the Mahfouzian characters struggling for order and meaning, in the opportunists who proclaim lofty principles only to betray them. A struggle rages in that unique rendition of the struggle between the idealism of those who want to repair the burdened country and the nemesis that sinks those hopes again and again.
It has taken an irreverent young physician and satirist, Bassem Youssef (Egypt’s Jon Stewart, he has been dubbed), to tell his country of the depth of the animus between its secular forces and the Islamists. In a piece published on July 19, Bassem Youssef mocked the secularists’ fantasy of a “normal state” of “good looking people” without veils and beards. The liberals of Egypt, he said, are on a “victory high”, their media outlets full of “discrimination and inciting rhetoric.” The satirist cut to the heart of things: the liberal secularists averting their gaze from the transgressions of the army and the police are no different from the “Islamists who think that their enemies’ disappearance off this planet would be a victory for the rebellion of God.” The army had broken the stalemate between the secularists and the Brotherhood, but the rancor of politics had not ended. “We have replaced the enemies of Islam with the enemies of the state.” The army and the police can rout the Brotherhood, overturn the verdict of the ballot, but there can be no total victory over the Brotherhood: “These people are never going to disappear…They will return to their home full of hatred, frustration, and disappointment which will augment in the South of Egypt and neglected Delta area; and they will return with more violence and determination in store.”
In their eagerness to overlook their defeat at the polls, the secularists are fierce in their conviction that it was a “revolution” that swept Mohamed Morsi aside. One figure of the Old Regime, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, insists that Morsi had been brought down by “popular impeachment.” Thus has June 30, the time of the big street protests that led to the coup d’état, been enshrined as a seminal event in Egypt’s political calendar – on par with July 23, 1952, and with January 25, 2011, which marks the agitation that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. For now, there is infatuation with the army and its commander; there is even revisionism about the police, once the stuff of nightmares for the secularists. Egypt needs no more revolutionary dates. What its condition calls for is a recognition of the schism that has brought its political life, once again, into a historical stalemate, and the rule of the army.
Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order