Despite the flag-waving celebrations in Tahrir Square, nobody should be under any illusions about what is unfolding in Egypt. The Arab world’s most populous country is experiencing an unmitigated disaster, a descent into chaos which may still result in bloody civil war and worse.
The army is already sealing Egypt’s borders. The fear is that the military coup will attract foreign fighters from other volatile parts of the Middle East and North Africa who want to win back the Muslim Brotherhood’s mandate. A nightmare vision of regional conflict pitting religious insurgents against Egyptian servicemen is by no means out of the question.
Such thoughts seemed unimaginable to those who stood shoulder to shoulder in 2011, when Cairo was the deliriously optimistic epicentre of the Arab Spring. Democracy was achieved relatively peacefully then, leading to Mohamed Morsi’s election in June last year.
There is no doubt that the Morsi I later met in Cairo was well-intentioned and passionate. He had a genuine vision for his country and wanted to adapt it to the demands of the global economy. The mood at the time was largely supportive, with even secularists prepared to back him.
However, his adherence to the “principles of Islamic law” meant, for example, a devastating erosion in the rights of women. Many of the brave and idealistic female protesters who contributed so much to the success of the pro-democracy demonstrations are among the huge numbers who have become victims of sexual violence in recent months.
Crime rates in general have rocketed, with a quadrupling of the murder rate. Meanwhile, unemployment has spiralled. More than a quarter of the population is now officially living below the poverty line, as the price of basics such as food and petrol grow ever higher.
Little wonder then that a mistrusted and aloof Islamist administration has grown less popular by the day. This year alone has seen some 1,000 anti-government demonstrations a month, culminating with around 22 million people calling for Morsi to resign in a petition: that’s nine million more than those who elected him.
Yet behind such dissatisfaction, there is deep unease about an elected head of state being forced out at the point of a gun after just one year in power. Dissent and failure are part and parcel of politics, yet Morsi has been treated like a common criminal.
Now the army undoubtedly wants to maintain its role of political kingmaker by appointing their own puppet, so as to continue to wield real power behind the scenes. The fears of Egyptians are very real. Hind El Hamzaoui, a 42-year-old librarian from Cairo, told me today: “What will be the point of new elections if last year’s are wiped out? What’s the point of democracy if soldiers ultimately decide who’s in charge?”
The position of the US will, as usual, be crucial. But the key will be the attitude of ordinary Egyptians. Their choice will be either to rally behind Morsi in a display of democratic outrage — like that which brought down Hosni Mubarak — or to meet the threat of military violence with organised political violence. The truth, though, is that if Egyptian democrats now take to the streets with bullets and bombs, then all hopes of a just and free Egypt will be well and truly crushed.