It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to remember those heady moments of early 2011, when hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square and stunned even themselves by ending a three-decade-old dictatorship.
Gone are the illusions of unity and brotherhood. Gone are the dreams of a smooth, relatively peaceful transition to a democratic system that would make Egyptians proud of their country and command admiration from the rest of the world.
Today, the blood-soaked streets of Cairo are a testament to tragedy. The images from the Egyptian capital bring to mind the final scene of a violent video game, where the last remaining survivor stands amid the rubble surveying the destruction. But there is one difference.
There are no winners in Egypt today. None.
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The military under Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has the upper hand, but he and the uniformed corps he leads are hardly the winners. On Aug. 14 — Black Wednesday — the military moved in to dismantle a massive sit-in by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were futilely demanding the reinstatement of former President Mohammed Morsi. We will never know how many were killed that day. The Muslim Brotherhood says security forces killed thousands of its supporters and wounded more than 10,000. The government says the dead amounted to several hundred, more than 40 of them security forces. The pictures from that awful day tell a terrible story.
The military has blood on its hands. It has reimposed the hated state of emergency of the dictatorship, banning all demonstrations, further eroding its claim to democratic legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood is hardly free of blame.
The Brotherhood will now maximize the event’s potential for victimhood as a rallying cry in the group’s blend of theological and practical strategies in the long-game quest to revive the Islamist caliphate. But nobody would be foolish enough to think the Brotherhood has emerged strengthened. No one would claim the Islamists are winners after the events of the last two years.
The Brotherhood’s leader, Morsi, turned out to be a disastrous president. His incompetence, however, was not the main problem with his turbulent year as president. Morsi and the Brotherhood showed they could win elections, but they also demonstrated they could not be trusted.
The Muslim Brotherhood lunged at power greedily, alienating any Egyptian who was not a fervent supporter. Democracy looked like a path to theocracy. Egyptians will never again give them the benefit of the doubt. And now the Brotherhood is on the run again, its leaders in prison or in hiding. It will likely return underground and even resort to terrorism. Protracted civil conflict will be a disaster for Egypt.
Also suffering a demoralizing defeat are Egypt’s liberals, who proved capable of launching a revolution that succeeded in toppling an entrenched president, but almost immediately lost control of the agenda and then failed to persuade voters to sign on to their vision.
Liberals sought — many still seek — the kind of democracy that would be recognizable in the West, with equal rights for all, protections for minorities, free press, free expression, rule of law.
Egyptian minorities stand in the middle. Dozens of Coptic Christian churches were torched by Islamists, but security forces did nothing to protect them.
Now Egypt is again under martial law. The civilian government was chosen by the generals. Television stations have been shut down, out-of-favor political leaders fear for their freedom, even their lives. Nobody has won.
On the losing side of the ledger we must add the United States, which handled the Egyptian uprising very badly and managed to come out of the crisis with all sides against it. Everyone is angry at Washington. Gen. al-Sissi says Egyptians won’t soon forget American actions. Liberals are angry that the Obama administration didn’t oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood is angry that the United States didn’t oppose the overthrow of a democratically elected government.
America did not play its hand well, but don’t listen to the chorus of Egyptians claiming this is America’s doing. U.S. leaders tried to mediate a way out of the impasse and sought to prevent the killings, which only portend more violence, division and instability.
There is a deeply ingrained tradition in the Arab world of blaming America whenever something goes wrong. Conspiracy theorists will offer endless explanations.
Whatever the U.S. government did wrong, it was the Egyptian people who started their revolution and who then let it get away from them. This is Egypt’s disaster; a disaster with no winners. It is now up to the Egyptian people to save their country.