As Egypt degenerates into quasi-civil war, two equally disruptive and self-serving narratives are gaining circulation. Many supporters of the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak see the army’s recent use of lethal violence as a necessary evil in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts at creating a theocratic political order with the connivance of Qatar, Turkey, and, possibly, the United States. Meanwhile, ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s supporters repeatedly underscore his electoral legitimacy and frame the army’s actions as a counter-revolution aimed at restoring military authoritarianism with the help of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and, possibly, the United States.
In fact, Egypt’s implosion is the result of an eroding political culture that lacks both trust and guiding political strategies. It may be hard to believe that anyone can benefit from the massacres, or the destruction and chaos into which the country is plunging. The raiding of protesters’ encampments by the army, the burning of churches, the crackdown on civil liberties, and the restoration of a state of emergency should be considered failures of judgment or capacity ― not actions that are part of some well-considered strategy.
Egyptian analysts and activists point to the uniqueness of Egypt’s political experience ― rapid citizen empowerment at an unprecedented scale. When mass mobilizations and counter-mobilizations can bring as much as a quarter of a country’s 90 million population into the streets, it spells a new paradigm of revolutionary change, particularly when these movements remain fundamentally leaderless. The anti-Morsi agitations may have been supported by the military but it did not command them. Attempts at drawing parallels between the current army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of the 1952 coup, are at best premature. Similarly, demands for Morsi’s restoration as president does not necessarily mean that he is the foremost leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In an attempt to explain the multitude of factors that have driven their revolution, Egyptian analysts have resorted to the notion of a “collective mind.” Dismissed by some as tautological, or even a modern restatement of endemic fatalism, the collective mind is the phenomenon of individual actions combining into a single meaningful outcome. Whether thus stated or merely implied in Egyptian political discourse, the notion of the collective mind has contributed to the new sense of empowerment and citizen responsibility that remains an indelible result of the transformations affecting Egypt and the region ― and which justify the label “Arab Spring,” irrespective of the succession of harsher seasons.
But confidence in the positive progression of events ought to be reconsidered in light of recent developments in Egypt. A particularly disturbing sign is the continuing absence of definitive demands and lack of post-action strategy on the part of every major faction. It is this void, and the potential for a collapse into a civil war situation, that the military presumably sought to preempt. And it is the illusion that the military’s actions were part of Egypt’s collective mind that drove many political factions to endorse the military crackdown.
Now may be the time for the liberal democratic current in Egypt ― and such a current does exist, despite many flaws ― to admit that crucial errors have been committed, not the least of which are the absence of a strategy, an undue reliance on the military, and the destructive demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Only through such an admission, coupled with a call to reconsider all measures including Morsi’s removal, can Egypt avoid slipping into civil war. Only Egypt, in other words, can save itself. All the West can do is be true to its values, and to call on those who share them in Egypt to do the same.