Thomas L. Friedman: Egypt’s revolution offers a sequel, but how will story end?

Published: Friday, Jul. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

Watching the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, I was left with this question – an interesting one: Will we one day look back at this moment as the beginning of the rollback of political Islam?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I've been reading the newspapers – and I have visited both Turkey and Egypt in the past few weeks – and here is what I've seen: I've seen a rebellion of the non-Islamist center and army in Egypt against the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. I've seen a rebellion of the secular, urbanized youth in Turkey against the Islamist Justice and Development Party there. I've seen an Iranian election where Iranian voters – who were only allowed to choose between six candidates pre-approved by Iran's clerical leadership – quickly identified which of the six was the most moderate, Hasan Rouhani, and overwhelmingly voted for him.

And I've seen the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia forced by voters there to compromise with two secular center-left parties in writing a constitution that is broad-based and not overly tilted toward Shariah law. And just a year ago in Libya, I saw a coalition led by a Western-educated political scientist beat its Islamist rivals in Libya's first free and fair election.

Again, it would be premature to say that this era of political Islam is over, but it is definitely time to say that the more moderate, non-Islamist, political center has started to push back on these Islamist parties and that citizens all across this region are feeling both more empowered and impatient. The fact that this pushback in Egypt involved the overthrow of an elected government by the Egyptian army has to give you pause; it puts a huge burden on that army – and those who encouraged it – to act in a more democratic fashion than those they replaced.

To understand the massive outpouring of grass-roots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, which spurred the Egyptian army to evict President Mohammed Morsi from office on his first anniversary of taking power, it is best to avoid the language of politics – Was it an army coup? Was it a popular revolt? – and focus instead on the language of law and order. In talking to Egyptians in recent weeks there is one word that best captures the mood of that country, and that word is "theft."

Always remember: Morsi narrowly won the presidency by 51 percent of the vote because he managed to persuade many secular and pious but non-Islamist Egyptians that he would govern from the center, focus on the economy and be inclusive. The Muslim Brotherhood never could have won 51 percent with just its base alone.

As it gradually became apparent that Morsi, whenever he had a choice of acting in an inclusive manner – and pulling in all sectors of Egyptian society – or grabbing more power, would grab more power, a huge chunk of Morsi voters, Islamists and non-Islamist, started to feel cheated by him. They felt that he and his party had stolen something very valuable – their long-sought chance to really put Egypt on a democratic course, with more equal growth.

The non-Islamist youth, who mounted the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011, more than any others, felt that their revolution had been stolen by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the rural and urban poor resented the fact that instead of delivering jobs and bread, as promised, Morsi delivered gas lines and electricity cuts. Egypt's Coptic Christians, some of whom were key supporters of the revolution against Mubarak, never trusted Morsi, who seemed to turn a blind eye to attacks on Christians.

That widespread sense of theft is what brought so many Egyptians into the streets, which is why it was quite ironic that President Morsi's last words before being toppled – words he conveyed in a short video over a presidential website – were: "The revolution is being stolen from us."

The thief was calling 911. Unfortunately for him, the Egyptian army answered. Its leaders had already been called by a significant swath of the Egyptian people, so it is now Morsi who finds himself in custody.

Historians will surely ponder over why the Muslim Brotherhood behaved so foolishly. The short answer seems to be that character is destiny. It has always been a Leninist-like party, with a very strict hierarchy and a conspiratorial view of political life honed from long years in the underground. The very characteristics that enabled it to survive repeated hammerings and arrests for 80 years by Egypt's military regimes worked against any spirit of inclusiveness once it was in power.

Two critical questions now hang over Egypt: Will the Egyptian army, which again revealed itself as the real power broker, insist that the new government be more inclusive than Morsi's – and to what end? Egypt will never be stable unless it has a government that represents all the main political forces in the country – and that still includes the Muslim Brotherhood. It has to be part of any new government.

Inclusion can be paralyzing or powerful, depending on whether everyone included can agree on a road map going forward. Egypt today is in such a yawning and deep economic hole. It has wasted so many years of development.

Can its main political actors (including the army) reach a democratic consensus on the wrenching set of economic, security and political reforms required to set Egypt on a growth trajectory, or can they only agree that the latest president must go?

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