BENNINGTON, VT — Tumultuous events have swept Egypt as a passionate, but polarized, population took to the streets to press for political change or to support the elected but increasingly authoritarian rule of President Mohammed Morsi. The culmination of the protests came with a massive turnout of millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians in Cairo, which when given the final push by the powerful military, swept the Morsi regime from office.
Demonstrations in Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square, were marked by frenzied jubilation where fireworks, laser lights and party atmosphere looked a cross between New Year’s Eve and a soccer World Cup victory party. Not far away, throngs of dour but agitated minions of the Muslin Brotherhood seethed as the reins of control slipped from their clutches after only a year in power.
Here rests the political and religious fault lines. Though an overwhelmingly Muslim land, a narrow majority of Egyptians are secular in their practice. These people see the increasingly heavy handed Muslim Brotherhood tactics as harmful. On the other side an equally large number of people view the once-banned Brotherhood as a religious mandate through which to rule. The country is divided, the situation is highly combustible.
Though narrowly elected just a year ago, Morsi relied on his hard line Muslim brotherhood supporters to press for an increasingly Islamist agenda in this land of 84 million people. But beyond the politics of secular versus a fundamentalist religious regime, Morsi’s greatest failing was sheer socio/economic incompetence which saw the country rapidly eroding and falling prey to wider unemployment, higher crime, attacks on women, lower tourism, and nil economic growth.
On the social side, religious minorities such as the Coptic Christians were harassed and attacked. Some 200,000 Christians have fled the country in the past few years. Secular political parties were increasingly harassed. Educated middle class people and business felt ostracized by their government. Over 22 million people signed a petition that Morsi step down.
Sadly as Egyptian government intolerance of religious diversity grew, economic incompetence equally followed. In an age of technologically savvy opposition weaned on the revolution of expectations, the combination proved volatile.
Egypt’s powerful and respected military has assumed power through a civilian technocratic government which aims at a new constitution and elections. A military role is nothing new; in July 1952, Colonel Gamal Nasser seized power in a coup d’etat and military rule of a secular but then Arab nationalist state became the norm until 2011.
What began as the hopeful if naive Arab Spring demonstrations against the autocratic leadership of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, saw the toppling of Mubarak, the slow but sure slip of Egyptian society from an Arab secular state close to the USA, into a increasingly fundamentalist future.
For all its faults, the collapse of Mubarak’s rule posed a major geopolitical setback for the United States in the Middle East. Egypt, a pivotal American ally in the Arab world, began to drift into unknown political waters. The Obama Administration which presumed it could work with Morsi, nonetheless, and facing much Congressional unease, kept the American financial and military aid pipeline open to the Muslim Brotherhood rulers.
Despite a polite relationship between Obama and Morsi, increasingly large numbers of Egyptians harbor negative feelings towards the USA. Ironically the Obama policies seem to have alienated both sides where secular Egyptians accuse Obama of a cozy relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and Morsi partisans who view Washington as having condoned the military takeover.
A new study, “Arab Spring adds to Global restrictions on Religion,” by the Pew Center for Religion and Public Policy, adds that Egypt has joined Saudi Arabia and Iran as the countries with the most restrictions on religion. Social hostilities concerning religion have risen dramatically.
Washington now faces awkward political choices in dealing with the new Cairo rulers. U.S. aid to Egypt is approximately $1.5 billion. Key American interests in Egypt; stability, maritime transit through the strategic Suez Canal, and the Sixth Fleet, are rarely mentioned. Israel is concerned about Egypt’s continuing adherence to the Camp David peace process.
Egypt is on the edge facing a deeply divided and polarized country. The new interim government must allow for political decompression, dialogue, and pluralism lest seething violence erupt.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.