The crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi on August 14 was a watershed moment in Egypt’s transition, yet the passing of its one-month anniversary might mark the passing of the window of opportunity for reviving Egypt’s fragile march towards democracy. The clamoring over the new Egyptian constitution is taking place amid a sustained crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, near-daily security incidents targeting police and military officers, continued civil unrest, and increased aggression towards human rights and democracy activists—one cannot help but wonder if the promises of the January 25 uprising can ever be resuscitated. Unless the military-led government in Cairo changes its course in the very near term, Egyptians may find themselves waiting another generation before they get a second try at revolution.
In the euphoria of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster almost three years ago, revolutionaries would have never imagined the state of affairs in which they find themselves today. In early 2011, with Mubarak's interior ministry goon squad reeling from an unprecedented defeat, they saw infinite possibilities for reshaping the new Egypt in their own image, unable to realize the difference between their vision and that of the state bureaucracy, the Islamists, and other vested interests. As those differences played out in a cliff-hanging political drama, a new dynamic emerged, reaching a crescendo on July 3, 2013 when thousands of protesters called for Morsi’s removal: that of polarization.
The roots of this drama lie in the governing strategy that Morsi—and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, by extension—employed during his truncated term. In the lead up to presidential elections in 2012, most Egyptians were willing to suspend their distrust of the shadowy group and put their faith in the power and momentum of the people’s uprising to constrain its ambitions and employ it to the demands of the January 25 aspirations. It did not take long to realize, however, that political considerations trumped any revolutionary demands for transformative change. Some could accept the way the Muslim Brotherhood played a deft game of deceit, shifting its alliances as it saw fit to position itself to rule, as part and parcel of politics in Egypt—or anywhere, for that matter. But as the economy continued to nosedive, and voices of dissent in critical media outlets were silenced, and it became apparent that Morsi was interested in co-opting rather than reforming state institutions, that momentum shifted against him and those he represented.
Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional decree introduced the poison that corrupted the spirit of the revolution. With the stroke of a pen, he declared himself the supreme ruler in Egypt. Despite his restraint, he reignited the fear of authoritarianism in Islamist form and sparked the war against him. The dominoes fell predictably enough: as the secular opposition went on the offensive, he relied on Islamists who maintained harder lines than the Muslim Brotherhood and rammed through a constitution that marginalized secular input. To maintain Islamist support, Morsi’s language against detractors grew harsher, and the conflation of faith and politics renewed sectarian tensions. As the distance between ideologies grew wider, his control over policy implementation grew weaker, increasing popular animosity that resulted in the Tamarod campaign—his eventual downfall.