DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – As Egypt’s political crisis tumbled toward its first night of major bloodshed last week, the country’s army chief was pulled away for a phone call. It was one he couldn’t easily ignore.
On the other end of the line was Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. He was calling to personally reinforce his strong backing to Egypt’s new caretaker rulers. And, he reminded Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Friday, Saudi Arabia expected “wisdom” as events unfolded.
The subtext was clear: Egypt’s upheavals will ultimately test the definitions of the Arab Spring and views on its role as a breeding ground for democracy in the region.
For nations such as Saudi Arabia, which have used all their resources to quell calls for reform, nothing could be more soothing than having the Arab Spring’s democratic credentials thrown into doubt. The nations may now increasingly point to Egypt as a cautionary tale about the aspirations of democracy, to both validate their hold on power and further tighten crackdowns on perceived dissent.
Elsewhere — from Tunisia’s political jockeying to the reshuffled Syrian opposition leadership — the sideline debates are now dominated by questions about whether Western-style political openness is the right fit for the complicated array of forces set in motion for the Arab revolts: empowered Islamists, anxious liberals, and military forces and other institutions that see themselves as guardians of stability.
“Egypt is not going to change the fundamental idea that the Arab Spring is about democracy and democratic ideals,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. “It will change the conversation, though, to bring in more questions about who is ready for it.”
Egypt, long the Arab world’s de facto center, became the pillar of the pro-democracy rebellions after Hosni Mubarak was swept from power in 2011 in just 18 days of pressure from the streets. The whiplash revolt against President Mohammed Morsi — a year after his election — has brought a disorienting spectacle of celebrations, anger and worry across the region that all meet in one general spot: whether belief in the power of the ballot box can fully recover.
For some Persian Gulf states that have done everything they can to crush the Arab Spring inspirations, the reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood’s downfall have been nearly euphoric.
The Saudi king — who backs Syria’s rebels but will not allow hints of protest at home — lauded defense chief el-Sissi for helping Egypt escape from “a dark tunnel.” The United Arab Emirates noted “satisfaction” in the toppling of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which are viewed by some gulf states as a fifth column against their Western-backed ruling systems. The UAE on Tuesday promised a total of $3 billion in grants and no-interest loans in one of the first major pledges of aid since Morsi’s fall, and Saudi Arabia later pledged $5 billion in grants and loans to the cash-strapped country.
“The Islamists have lost more than the presidency. They have lost the moral case. The Islamist brand has been damaged,” said Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.
“The damage will transcend Egypt to neighboring Arab and Middle Eastern countries,” he said. “Many Arabs now will take a second look at the Islamists and say, ‘There is a huge divide between the rhetoric and the reality. No original ideas. No economic plan. They pursued similar policies to Mubarak.’“
But that’s not the only collateral damage from Egypt, he said. The military’s role in bringing down Morsi’s government strikes at the “democratic future” in Egypt and elsewhere.
“After what happened in Egypt, the democracies in the Arab Spring countries are in danger,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies in Baghdad. “There is still fire under the ashes in these countries that could lead to widespread civil war and divisions.”
On Monday, the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera — an important opinion shaper — held an online forum to discuss whether Western-style democracy in the region has suffered a setback because of the rejection of Morsi, who has been held in an undisclosed location since last week.
On the webcast, London-based political analyst Mamoon Alabbassi noted the apparent failures of Morsi’s government — including Egypt’s stumbling economy — but feared the precedent of letting the streets decide when a government should go.
This circles back to the heart of Egypt’s crisis: the claim by Morsi’s opponents that it was he — not they — who betrayed democracy by allegedly concentrating power among Islamists and excluding others.
In many ways, it speaks to the wider questions of democracy’s essence and evolution. Expectations of quick and seamless transitions from authoritarian rule to elections ignore the lessons of history. Through the centuries, post-revolution governments have taken years or longer to shake out.
“We are witnessing a new wave of events that are shaping up the Arab Spring and Arab revolutions. … We should not be surprised to see a long way until we reach an Arab democratic system,” said Nabil Bou Moncef, a senior analyst with Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar newspaper. “I am not surprised by what is going on. The West fought major wars and had bloody revolutions until they reached the current system.”