The military coup in Egypt this month and the bloody attacks since, perpetrated by the military and police against supporters of constitutional legitimacy, will form an important turning point in the political history of the Middle East. Its impact will be felt beyond Egypt, marking a decisive moment between continuing with the difficult option of transitioning towards democracy, and pursuing a course whose focus would be violence and chaos across borders.
Since independence from western colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, Arabs have suffered from decades of harsh dictatorships. The Arab nation states managed to justify their crimes with various explanations. Some were pan-nationalist, using the excuse of confronting Israel with calls to liberate Palestine; others were nationalistic, with claims of safeguarding national unity.
The international climate enabled these states to continue with their tyrannical policies, due to the cold war balances of power or because the west preferred stability over freedom. Meanwhile, the Arab world remained under the rule of despots – most from a military background. They used repression, torture and exclusion. They formed alliances with business interests that benefited from the absence of transparency and accountability, giving birth to a deep state that ravaged public facilities and dominated political and social activity.
The Arab spring that began in 2010 was driven by the educated youth who were connected to the outside world. They had visions of liberal politics derived from social networks. They used innovative means to spread awareness and to network among activists. The deep state was surprised by these methods of expression and strategies for change. The ageing systems in Tunisia and Egypt quickly collapsed, and the process toward democratic institutions began. Parliamentary elections were held and transitional structures put in place.
As a result the jostling for power in these countries began. It was a difficult process. Various political forces had been barred from political participation for decades. They now had to engage in dialogue to reach a social and political contract that would lay the foundations for a future of freedom, dignity and peaceful political coexistence.
Meanwhile, particularly in Egypt, the deep state – represented by the army, security and judiciary – allied with big business, began to recuperate. The Arab spring was not as radical as the French or Iranian revolutions. It did not pull out the deeply entrenched roots of the state. Instead, it was satisfied to replace the top of the pyramid with newly elected, but inexperienced, leaders. After a period of turmoil the deep state was able to breathe again, and it portrayed the transition to democracy as an abject failure. Ordinary citizens were angered by the deterioration of services and grew tired of the political crises, fuelled by doses of misinformation. The result was a military coup that had political cover and support from sections of the population, as well from regional states affected by the Arab spring.
Reformist political Islam, considered the greatest beneficiary of the Arab spring, managed to make big gains over the past three years. In dealing with despotic regimes, Islamists had split during the middle of the past century into two sections. The first saw the need for a peaceful and evolutionary change of the political reality. The second saw the need for a fundamental change that could occur only through a decisive confrontation and the use of force. The Muslim Brotherhood adopted the first approach, establishing what is referred to as political Islam. Other organisations opted for the second, founding armed jihadist movements, which culminated in the emergence of al-Qaida.
The Arab spring confirmed that peaceful change is possible and so reinforced the vision of political Islam. The impact of this went beyond the Brotherhood to include the Salafist tendency in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya that had questioned the democratic path. This weakened the argument of the jihadists, and pushed their leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to attack the democratic transformation. Today, Zawahiri is smiling as he sees the coup against constitutional legitimacy in Egypt.
The Arab masses now see the bloody violence of the army against peaceful demonstrators in Egypt, the most strategically important Arab state. Meanwhile, the US administration wonders aloud whether what happened was a coup or not. Similarly obscure statements emanate from other western countries, which equate the victim with the executioner.
Many people in the Arab world now feel that they have been deceived. This is dangerous. It is no longer possible for the Arab people to submit to a security state. As for those who believe in armed violence, the region is poised to fulfil their needs. The continuing armed struggle in Syria, the sectarian clashes in Iraq, the security tensions in Lebanon, the security crises in Sudan and Somalia, and the proliferation of weapons in Libya and Egypt together provide the perfect opportunity to establish a wide area of chaos and violence across borders.
Today we face two choices. The first is that we can surrender future generations to bloody conflicts in which the killer would not know why he was killing. This chaos would affect all the countries in the region and go beyond, to reach Europe and affect US interests.
The second choice is that we boldly and decisively restore the process of democratic change in Egypt and rein in the deep state and its repeated attempts to reinstate the past. This requires the full political participation of the different forces. All those truly concerned should endorse the second choice before it is too late.
This article first appeared on guardian.co.uk
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.