About Egypt today there is only one question that truly matters.
This is whether it will become another Syria.
The circumstances in the two countries are not alike. Confronted early in 2011 by local demonstrations against the government’s incompetence and corruption, Syria’s ruling dictator, Bashar Assad, made the decision not to attempt to address these complaints but instead to silence them by sending in the army.
Today’s consequence of Assad’s choice is a civil war in Syria that the United Nations estimates has caused more than 100,000 deaths, half of them civilians. As well, more than 2 million people have had to flee the country and now live as refugees in neighbouring states.
Helped by weaponry supplied by Russia and Iran, Assad has recently regained some of the territory he lost earlier. It remains improbable, though, to foresee any future now for Syria other than its eventual breakup into its different, bitterly opposed, ethnic and religious parts.
Until the last few weeks, Egypt’s equivalent experience has been quite different.
Mass protests broke out there, also in early 2011, calling for democracy in place of the repression and the unrestrained police brutality imposed by the government of dictator Hosni Mubarak. To end the protests, the security police were unleashed upon the crowds. The army, which is — or was — probably the only respected institution in Egypt, remained neutral though.
At the astonishing speed of little more than a month, the protesters forced Mubarak to resign. Even more remarkably, the election that succeeded this was actually a democratic one, or at least largely so.
Its outcome was the election as president of the Islamic Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi.
This was the finest moment in what, by this time was being praised as the “Arab Spring.” It is the second act that followed this achievement that now threatens to turn Egypt into a second Syria. This was the army’s intervention to depose Morsi as president.
Beyond any argument, this was an outright and illegal coup. Yet valid reasons exist to justify the act. Morsi, once in office, filled up all the top positions with Islamic extremists rather than attempting to govern in the interests of all his people. As damaging, Morsi failed to deal with, even to address the crippling shortages of electricity and of food that hit hardest at Egypt’s poor, these amounting to some 40 per cent of the population.
Paucity of choice
In the vivid phrase of the prominent Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy, the choice that now confronts the Egyptian people is between “fascists with uniforms and fascists with Qur’ans.”
From this point on, the comparison between Egypt and Syria narrows. The crowds that have come out to support Morsi are almost as large as those that once filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down.
As did their predecessors
they, too, have suffered. Already,
the death toll of demonstrators gunned down by army snipers tops 1,000.
As always, the answer to blood is blood. On the weekend, two dozen policemen were massacred by Morsi supporters in the Sinai.
Too late, the army commander Gen. Abdul al-Sisi has pledged in the first and only public statement he has made that, “There is room for everyone.”
Whether the outflow of blood will now go on to become like that of another Syria, can only be guessed at.
Only one thing is certain. This is that the once hopeful, optimistic phrase “Arab Spring” has turned into a description of a nightmare, one that now engulfs almost the entire Middle East, not just in Syria and in Egypt but also in Iraq and Yemen and Libya and Lebanon, and perhaps even in Tunisia were it all once began, so peaceably.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears
every other Thursday.