2013: The Year Democracy Caught a Cold

No one who watches global events could forget the January 2011 democracy protests in Cairo, so big and massive that Western mainstream media were sending reporters in droves. For days, we watched in awe as young Egyptians took to the streets in their major cities, literally putting their lives on the line for a new Egypt, free from political repression and inequality.

2011 anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt, 2011. Credit:  Flickr/Univers Beeldbank
2011 anti-Mubarek protests in Egypt, 2011. Credit: Flickr/Univers Beeldbank

What become known as "The Arab Spring" began with the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia on Jan. 15, 2011, and spread to an open struggle against monarchy and dictatorship all over the Middle East. Two months later in a dramatic display of success, the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, now joined with the Muslim Brotherhood and a cross-section of Egyptian religious and political interests, drove Hosni Mubarak, who stood accused of running a corrupt, abusive and repressive police state, from office.

“For eighteen days we have withstood teargas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, Molotov cocktails, thugs on horseback, the skepticism and fear of our loved ones, and the worst sort of ambivalence from an international community that claims to care about democracy," protester Karim Medhat Ennarah told The Guardian upon news of Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, 2011.

“But we held our ground. We did it.”

“Now Egyptians are free. All of Egypt is liberated. Now we will choose our leaders, and if we don’t like them, they will go,” declared another protester, Mohammed Abdul Ghedi.

That was nearly three years ago. But today, there is a much different spirit in the air. After holding power (through an extremely close election in June 2012) for only a year, Mohammed Morsi, hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood, was deposed by the military, with full support from the protest movement. Since then, the country has slipped back to de facto military rule. Instead of promised reforms by interim President Adly Mansour and Army Chief, Minister of Defense and interim Prime Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (both Mubarak holdovers, though El-Sisi was appointed to head the army by Morsi in 2012), the Egyptian people are facing new crackdowns on free speech, their ability to protest and an environment of state control and paranoia.

Back to Tahrir Square one doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Just before the Christmas holiday, the "interim" regime in Cairo sentenced three of the original April 6 leaders to three years in prison for holding an illegal rally (protests are now banned) and inciting a riot by throwing rocks (which they deny).

“The youth of the revolution who call for freedom, democracy and their right to protest … are today tried unfairly and according to a dictatorial law that reflects this current regime and this current phase – basically turning against the ideals of the revolution,” Amr Ali, coordinator for the April 6 movement, said in a news conference after the verdict.

“We will continue to escalate against the protest law, against this repressive regime.” Ironically, the now jailed protesters had fought for the ouster of Morsi last summer, which led to the military takeover of the government. Morsi had fumbled and bumbled through his first months in office and then began instituting policies and laws that took on an increasingly intolerant and Islamist-only complexion. His government started throwing anti-Morsi Egyptians in jail under blasphemy laws and was accused of pushing through a new Islamist constitution.

Today, however, the military stands accused of killing upwards of 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters since Morsi’s ouster. As for the constitution, critics say the military is amending the Morsi-era document to insulate state institutions and gives broader power to the military, including the power to try civilians in military courts.

Credit: Flickr/H.B Photographer
Credit: Flickr/H.B Photographer

"The military, judiciary, police, and other groups have sought to protect themselves from the very sort of challenge they encountered from elected Muslim Brotherhood officials and secular revolutionaries," wrote Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Institute for Peace.

"A less generous interpretation is simply that the leaders of institutions of the pre-2011 state have seen in the current anti-Brotherhood, pro-military popular climate an opportunity to retake – and even broaden – the powers they enjoyed under Mubarak."

Recent terror attacks by Islamist groups perhaps using the near-obliteration of the Muslim Brotherhood as an excuse, are fanning the flames of fear and are actually helping El-Sisi justify the countrywide crackdown on "terror." After a bomb exploded outside a police station in the city of Mansoura on Dec. 24, killing 16, El-Sisi told an audience of military graduates that Egyptians have to "put their trust in God, the army and the civilian police to take Egypt to freedom, stability and progress."

Though an al Qaeda-inspired group not connected to the Brotherhood claimed responsibility for the bombing, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization on Dec. 25, upping the ante against remaining members still involved in protest. On Dec. 26, a bomb ripped through a bus in Cairo, killing five.

Clashes between police and Brotherhood supporters protesting the new terrorist designation and anti-protest laws, clashed with police over the next day across the country, resulting in hundreds of arrests and four deaths.

Meanwhile, CBS News reported this week that El Sisi is commanding a cult-like following called "Sisi mania" in Egypt, suggesting, if not cementing the idea that El Sisi has his sights on the presidency.

The Obama administration, though clucking against the crackdowns and withholding military aid for Egypt as of October, seems to have failed diplomatically at each turn since the Arab Spring began. Its policy on Egypt appears scattershot. First, there was lukewarm support for the initial freedom movement (remember Mubarak was an old friend of the Western powers), and then tepid support for Morsi when he was democratically elected. But when Morsi began down the same anti-democratic road, the US garnered scorn from the freedom movement for not being more critical. Now Morsi is in jail, and it seems Washington got what ostensibly wanted, a non-Islamist rule in Egypt. Still, Obama is withholding aid and Secretary of State John Kerry is sort of acting outraged over the latest crackdowns. We just don’t know.

People of all Arab nations struggling for freedom must be measuring the Obama today against his muscular declarations about democracy in Cairo in 2009, where he said:

So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Nearly five years later, in Bahrain – despite a committed revolution – Shia continue to be oppressed by the U.S-backed ruling Monarchy. Conditions are equally deplorable in Saudi Arabia. In Syria, the democracy movement that sparked the revolution against the oppressive Assad regime three years ago has been all but vanquished by Islamic extremist factions, with fighters pouring in from different borders on behalf of competing regional interests. In Yemen, the democratic struggle that led to the president’s ouster in 2012 is trying to survive against the entrenchment of old regime remnants and continued instability due to competing extremist elements, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has flourished in part from continued US drone strikes on the country.

Says Patrick Cockburn in his excellent analysis of the current challenges of revolution:

The uprisings of the Arab Spring have so far produced anarchy in Libya, a civil war in Syria, greater autocracy in Bahrain and resumed dictatorial rule in Egypt. In Syria, the uprising began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the brutality of Assad’s regime. ‘Peace! Peace!’ protesters chanted. But ‘if there was a fair election in Syria today,’ one commentator said, ‘Assad would probably win it.’

Could the US have been more supportive of the Arab Spring? You bet. Could it have avoided what is happening in all of these places today? No one knows, exactly. Cockburn offers some historical analysis on that point. But that still doesn’t let Washington off the hook. Lately, it never seems capable of putting pretty words into real action, and everyone knows it.

So 2014 blows in on an air of uncertainty. Whether this spells an end to revolution or merely continuing "transition" among these Middle Eastern states remains to be seen. For sure, writers like Larbi Sadiki want to think it’s the later, and we’d rather end on his point:

Even in the midst of uncertainty, violence, trepidation, confusion and delays, the Arab Spring is very much alive – even if its detractors incessantly and arrogantly await a winter metamorphosis. Arabs will never settle to live “a big lie”, by any account, secularist or Islamist. Truly, Arabs have for three years entered a new dawn: They are peoples in the midst of unstoppable revolution and transition.


Happy New Year to all Antiwar.com readers, longstanding and new. Your support throughout 2013 – reading, commenting and contributing – was invaluable to this writer, and to all of us!

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.