Middle East

Egypt, a Nation Divided

Supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi are upset. But the real loser is democracy, says Barak Barfi.

Ed Giles/Getty

On the dusty streets of Nasr City near the Raba’a al-Adawiyya mosque, Salah Issa Muhammad reclined against a rusty tent pole. “This is a revolt against the legal authority,” the lawyer asserted, denouncing the coup that deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. On the other side of town in Tahrir Square, which has been the site of two revolutions in three years, Ahmad Mustafa celebrated the president’s ouster. “Morsi was a dictator who had to be removed,” he says.

Egypt is a nation divided against itself. The Islamists who endured decades of oppression, and then took power through the ballet box, are aligned against a cabal of secular forces and elements of the ancien régime that propelled the army to strip them of their elected victory. As the two factions step up their war of rhetoric, the West has dithered. It desperately wants to stabilize a woefully unstable state, but is reluctant to intervene. But as the three sides of this wobbly triangle fight to gain the upper hand, the real loser will be democracy—followed by the disillusionment of a generation of youth who saw an electoral process reversed as quickly as it was instituted.

At the Raba’a al-Adawiyya mosque, where President Morsi’s supporters are camped out, those concerns are trivial. They are merely focused on reinstating their leader. “Morsi is our legitimately elected president,” Tala’a Faruq says. “No one has the right to remove him except through elections.” Morsi’s supporters emphasize their commitment to the electoral process. But the intricacies of democracy and coalition-building—concepts the president failed to grasp—are lost on the protesters here. Instead, they largely repeat the slogans spewed out by those on stage.

Morsi’s supporters should be excused for their mechanical recitations of the party line, as democracy here is young. But the coup just dealt democracy a serious blow, and now an authoritarian state is once again using the state media to demonize Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party. A commentator in the flagship daily al-Ahram compared the movement’s ways to those of the Devil, accusing the organization of packaging falsehood as truths.

In Nasr City, the protesters pray to Allah five times a day. But their supplications are directed at Washington and other Western capitals. They want President Obama and his European counterparts to compel the military to reinstate President Morsi. “Where is the Obama who gave us so much hope to believe?” asked Ahmad Abd al-Aziz, expressing a frustration that could easily have been muttered on any street corner in an Ohio rust-belt town. Until Washington embraces a more grassroots approach, Egypt is unlikely to emerge from its quandary.

For a land that has known a strong central government, from the ancient Pharaohs to the medieval Mamluks, Egypt is staring for the first time into the abyss of the unknown. From abroad, it looks like a tinderbox waiting to explode. But the country has historically avoided the periodic upheavals that have convulsed regional states like Iraq and Syria. A strong sense of belonging to one unified nation will likely avert the civil war that some fear is Egypt’s destiny. And a Muslim Brotherhood that committed itself to the electoral process decades ago has no plans to embark on a campaign against the military that it is sure to lose.

“We are against violence,” the brotherhood’s minister of youth, Osama Yassin, told me. “The peaceful struggle is our path.” Today the fear is that a younger generation—disheartened with the way the secular factions ousted President Morsi, and alienated by the state media’s anti-Islamist campaign—will turn against the democratic process, gravitating toward radical sheikhs who claim that the West will never accept an Islamist state.

“I hear from the youths here that Morsi’s overthrow demonstrates that violence is the only way,” my friend Muhammad Abd al-Rahman told me in Nasr City. His words carry an authority that extends beyond the confines of the protest tents here. Abd al-Rahman’s father is the blind sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Osama bin Laden once slaughtered a sheep in the younger Abd al-Rahman’s honor in Afghanistan.

The Qur’an teaches that “Allah is with the patient.” But though the Muslim Brotherhood patiently waited 84 years to reach power, it was toppled in a matter of days. If President Morsi is not reinstated, some of his disgruntled supporters are not willing to wander in the political wilderness for eight more decades. And that is a dilemma that should worry Western leaders who have turned their back on democracy in this troubled nation.