Egypt’s Arab Spring Gives Way To Spring Of The Patriarch

With a new constitution to approve and a military strongman to elect as president, there’s a terrible inevitability to the course of events in Egypt over the next few months.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

January 25 is a date that Egyptians celebrate—and fear—and it’s coming on fast. Most people today associate it with the beginning of the 2011 popular uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power. And for those bloggers and liberal activists who played starring roles in that first act of Egypt’s revolutionary drama, it’s still a day to commemorate and to celebrate. But for many others, it has come to seem the precise moment when their country started falling apart.

Since then Egyptians have suffered successively the caprices of a military junta, a year of disastrous rule by the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi, then another popular uprising last summer—the biggest ever—to oust Morsi and his cronies. But that led to a de facto takeover by a military strongman, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the current defense minister.

Ever since, al-Sisi and his officers have been hell bent on crushing the Brotherhood—forever and at any price—even if it means stripping rights away from liberals, secularists, journalists, and just about anyone else who might want to question the authority of men with peaked hats and eagles on their shoulders.

Meanwhile the economy is in tatters and the future looks damn bleak. “A lot of people are going to be going to Tahrir this January 25,” says a once-prosperous Egyptian businessman who’s had to fire half his employees, “but this year they are going to be protesting against January 25.”

Unfortunately, protests against protests won’t solve the country’s problems. The same businessman, who attended a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other prominent Egyptians last November, admitted that, amid all the complaints, none of the Egyptians had a clear democratic strategy to rescue this country of 85 million people. Kerry just said he’d ponder what he’d heard, and went to bed.

The nightmare that looms ahead now is likely to be a pseudo-democratic process meant to legitimize a popular dictator. To turn the title of a classic Gabriel García Márquez on its head, this will be “The Spring of the Patriarch.” The first milestone: a referendum on January 14 and 15 to approve a new constitution. The next will come around the end of the month—most likely after the January 25 anniversary—when General al-Sisi is widely expected to resign from the army so he can legally run for president in April or so. (We could make a nod here to the will-he-won’t-he equivocations about his intentions in the Egyptian press, but why bother? His country is calling him. Or so he’ll say.) The fix will be in. But Al-Sisi’s pharaonic style is genuinely popular with many of his countrymen. There’s really no doubt he’ll win.

As the electoral spectacle moves forward over the next few months, the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood will operate underground, which is where many of them are most comfortable. After all, the organization’s clandestine structures date back 80 years. The military and security apparatus will continue to do all it can to crush what it has branded a terrorist organization. The trial of Morsi, now due to begin February 1, will be just a sideshow. The real action will be among lesser figures in the prisons, where torture has always been commonplace, and now is likely to have free rein.

Blood will be shed so often at street demonstrations and in small-scale attacks on the army and police that it will cease to make headlines in Egypt or internationally. But a process of radicalization among the Brotherhood’s people will intensify, and whether in the name of their old organization, or Al-Qaeda, or as-yet-unheard-of “groups” and “fronts,” “brigades” and “companions,” they will do their worst to make Egypt ungovernable. They can also be counted on to work with the formal and informal networks of radical jihadists that now stretch across Africa and from the Sinai to Syria and Europe.

Some investors will bet that al-Sisi’s iron fist can calm things down. Indeed, many already have. Billions of dollars in support from al-Sisi’s backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have helped shore up the economy. The Cairo stock market jumped 10 points when the military ousted Morsi in July, and the index is now as high as it was on January 24, 2011, the day before this all began.

Tourism—especially European and American tourism—will be slow to revive. But Egypt, with all of its ancient monuments and the white strands of sand next to crystalline waters on what’s now called the Red Sea Riviera, is one of the world’s great destinations. In the 1980s, Palestinian terrorists repeatedly struck Egyptian targets, but after a lull the tourists returned. In the 1990s, jihadists fought a savage little war to try to overthrow Mubarak, and in 1997 they slaughtered 58 sightseers at a temple in Luxor. But after a few months, tourists came back. (One of ex-President Morsi’s signal stupidities last year was to name a former head of the group behind that massacre as his appointed governor of Luxor.

Egypt is eternal, one might say, but its problems are infernal. No wonder Kerry said he had a lot to ponder before going to bed. It would be a miracle if he’s been able to get any sleep since.