Winter in Cairo

Eric Trager, who has forgotten more about Egypt than I have yet learned, writes in The New Republic about the unhappy birthday of Egypt’s botched revolution.

Egypt is now headed for radical theocratic, rather than liberal democratic, rule…

It is tempting to believe that things might have turned out differently had Washington worked harder to bolster the young revolutionaries who seemingly exemplified America’s own liberal values when they took to the streets last January. These brave activists, after all, had won America’s hearts to the tune of an 82-percent approval rating at the height of the revolt, and their photogenic faces carried the promise of a more democratic, friendly Egypt.

But the activists were never who we hoped they were. Far from being liberal, their ranks were largely comprised of Nasserists, revolutionary socialists, and Muslim Brotherhood youths—an alliance of convenience for opposing Mubarak and, later, for denouncing the U.S.

Thus, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in March 2011, a group of leading activists refused to meet with her. They also turned out to be intolerant conspiracy theorists: When classically Cairoesque rumors that a “Jewish Masonic” ceremony was to be held at the pyramids on November 11, the April 6th Youth Movement’s Democratic Front declared that this non-existent event should be prohibited. “We are committed to the achievements of the revolution, which emphasized freedom,” they said in a statement. “But freedom is not absolute freedom, and … it is constrained by the regulations and beliefs of the Egyptian people, who do not accept that these celebrations be protected in the wake of the revolution.”


I know a few Egyptian intellectuals and activists who are authentic liberals, but they’re not remotely a majority. The percentage of Egyptians who genuinely support most or all the tenets of Western-style liberal democracy is in the high single digits at best.

Of all the Arab Spring countries so far, the odds of a successful outcome were always the bleakest in Egypt. The place is just so painfully backwards and dysfunctional. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, remember, and one of the reasons I was initially optimistic about democracy’s prospects there is because Tunisia is the Arab world’s great anti-Egypt. It differs so radically from Egypt in so many ways that it’s sometimes hard to believe the two countries belong to the same civilization. They are both Arab countries, and they are both in North Africa, but they are nearly at opposite ends of the Arab cultural and political spectrums.

I’m far from certain that it’s springtime even in Tunis, but there should be no doubt at this point that it’s winter in Cairo.


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