The Egyptian Revolution lurches on. With 42 dead in Cairo last night, and widespread unrest around the country, dreams of a “velvet coup” are evaporating. In the wake of last night’s violence, the Brotherhood is calling on Egyptians to “rise up” against the coup. American diplomacy, aimed now at reconciling the Brotherhood to the coup, looks even less relevant and more distracted than usual. The Nour party, the alternative Islamist force to the Brotherhood in the country, has withdrawn from participation in the military-backed road to political normalization, and it is safe to say that no one in Egypt today has any idea where the country is headed.
Morsi was a terrible president, and the Brotherhood ran the country the way Nikita Khrushchev danced (“like a cow on ice” is how Stalin described it), but Morsi as a martyr and the Brotherhood as an embittered opposition are good at what they do. “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch,” said Brother Rabbit to Brother Fox; by flinging the Brotherhood into opposition, Egypt’s military has hurled its opponents from a weak position into a strong one.
Islamism in Egypt is a philosophy of opposition, not a program for governing. In power it withered; back in opposition it can regain its appeal. A tough military crackdown could mean many dead activists, with many more broken by harsh treatment in jail. But the Brotherhood knows how to survive under attack and a crackdown will create new extremists faster than it can break down the old.
In government, Morsi and his allies had an impossible task: to make Egypt work. Now they have an easier one: watch it fail. If the military and its civilian allies can’t make the economy grow and provide jobs, food and oil to the masses, the same crowds who cheered the coup last week will soon curse the generals by name.
The economic prospects stink. The Saudis and a few others will make some big promises (and perhaps write some small checks) out of relief that the Brotherhood is gone, but the specter of civil unrest will kill any hope for an economic revival. Few potential tourists and investors these days are picking up their newspapers and thinking that Egypt is looking like a safe destination once more. The uglier the military government looks, and the more blood it has on its hands, the harder it will be for Western governments to shovel billions more aid dollars into the Egyptian money pit.
The calendar is also bad; Ramadan has come. The mosques will be packed and emotions will be high. This is the time of year when religion looms largest in the life of the average Egyptian, and it is the time of year when the imams have their biggest audiences. From the Brotherhood’s point of view, the military could have done it no greater favor than creating 42 new martyrs at the start of the holiest month in the year.
Yet victories in opposition are sterile. It’s hard to see how the Brotherhood back in opposition and on the run can acquire the wisdom, the vision, and the skills to run Egypt should it ever get another shot in power.
Ultimately, the controlling reality in Egypt remains that nobody in Egypt or outside of it knows how to build the kind of country and society Egyptians want. What could transform Egypt into an East Asian style economic powerhouse, or even a Turkish style success story? The IMF and the World Bank don’t have an answer; the Egyptian establishment doesn’t have an answer; the Obama administration doesn’t have an answer; the Islamists don’t have an answer; the liberal twitterati don’t have an answer; the generals don’t have an answer.
But life doesn’t stop just because no one knows what to do. Egypt must be governed even if it can’t be governed well. The next stage of Egypt’s revolution will be about the construction of a government without hope. Armies can be surprisingly good at that kind of work; order without hope is their stock in trade. The army has not exactly covered itself with glory in the days since the coup, but when hope fades, force is what remains.
Stay tuned; this isn’t over.
[A man reacts after seeing the body of a slain protester at the Liltaqmeen al-Sahy Hospital in Cairo's Nasr City district, allegedly killed during a shooting at the site of a pro-Morsi sit-in in front of the headquarters of the Egyptian Republican Guard on July 8, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]