The promise of the Arab Spring has now descended into a chaotic season of paradox. In the coming weeks, the crisis in Egypt will play out, and the nature of its resolution will determine — perhaps for generations — the course of political self-determination in the world's most volatile region.
This is paradoxical because Egypt has plunged itself into upheaval as a result of popular discontent over its first popularly elected government. The crisis surrounding the administration of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, who was ousted last week and replaced temporarily by Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, may stand as a turning point in that nation's history. As with the similar ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the military now has assumed what it calls temporary control pending elections. But elections and democracy do not, in and of themselves, guarantee peace or equal treatment under the law. Egypt's future depends on whether its leaders understand this.
What Egyptians need is a constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities, and a government system that protects those rights against the whims of any leader or party that assumes power. Under Morsi, religious persecutions, particularly against Christians, were treated as inconsequential. Although popularly elected, Morsi's government showed disdain for the institutions a democracy must maintain in order to survive.
As it did three years ago, the world will keep watch over the events in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Again, tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in opposition to their government. Violence has marred these protests As many as 53 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed over the weekend and hundreds more injured by members of the military. Conflicting accounts make it difficult to tell what happened. Meanwhile, the hardline Salafist Nour Party, which supported the ouster of Morsi, has withdrawn from negotiations to choose an interim prime minister because of the deaths.
These are not good signs. They indicate the passions of the factions involved in Egyptian society. Egypt is a large and important nation in the region, and its failure to establish a peaceful, representative government would be a catastrophe.
Confidence in the Morsi administration evaporated as frustrations mounted over the country's economic malaise and the governing techniques of Morsi's party, a creation of the Islamic Brotherhood. Morsi's failure should be a clear sign to the military that it failed in its first attempt to establish a peaceful government. It must learn from those mistakes.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken pains to maintain strict neutrality in the current unrest. That is understandable, as neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military offer a clear path to the type of leadership that would lead to a stable and reliable ally in the region. However, neutrality may be a practical impossibility for the United States, which had a hand in training the military and provides assistance to Egypt in other ways. That certainly seems to be the perception as far as angry protesters are concerned.
Every instance of violence makes it harder for Egypt to patch together its disparate parties and interests. Only ballots and strong guarantees for civil liberties will do that. The people of Egypt demonstrated the promises of the Arab Spring when they ousted Mubarak. Now the world has seen the difficulties involved in replacing him with something that guarantees peace and prosperity. We hope the second time proves more successful.