The Egyptian presidential election was held last week. No candidate received 50 percent of the vote, so a runoff will be held between the two leading candidates, Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi represented the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and received 25.3 percent of the vote, while Shafiq, a former Egyptian air force commander and the last prime minister to serve in Hosni Mubarak’s administration, received 24.9 percent. There were, of course, charges of irregularities, but in general the results made sense. The Islamist faction had done extremely well in the parliamentary election, and fear of an Islamist president caused the substantial Coptic community, among others, to support the candidate of the old regime, which had provided them at least some security.
Morsi and Shafiq effectively tied in the first round, and either can win the next round. Morsi’s strength is that he has the support of both the Islamist elements and those who fear a Shafiq presidency and possible return to the old regime. Shafiq’s strength is that he speaks for those who fear an Islamist regime. The question is who will win the non-Islamist secularists’ support. They oppose both factions, but they are now going to have to live with a president from one of them. If their secularism is stronger than their hatred of the former regime, they will go with Shafiq. If not, they will go with Morsi. And, of course, it is unclear whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military committee that has ruled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, will cede any real power to either candidate, especially since the constitution hasn’t even been drafted.
This is not how the West, nor many Egyptians, thought the Arab Spring would turn out in Egypt. Their mistake was overestimating the significance of the democratic secularists, how representative the anti-Mubarak demonstrators were of Egypt as a whole, and the degree to which those demonstrators were committed to Western-style democracy rather than a democracy that represented Islamist values.
What was most underestimated was the extent to which the military regime had support, even if Mubarak did not. Shafiq, the former prime minister in that regime, could very well win. The regime may not have generated passionate support or even been respected in many ways, but it served the interests of any number of people. Egypt is a cosmopolitan country, and one that has many people who still take seriously the idea of an Arab, rather than Islamist, state. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamism and have little confidence in the ability of other parties, such as the socialists, who came in third, to protect them. For some, such as the Copts, the Islamists are an existential threat. The military regime, whatever its defects, is a known bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. The old order is attractive to many because it is known; what the Muslim Brotherhood will become is not known and is frightening to those committed to secularism. They would rather live under the old regime.
What was misunderstood was that while there was in fact a democratic movement in Egypt, the liberal democrats who wanted a Western-style regime were not the ones exciting popular sentiment. What was exciting it was the vision of a popularly elected Islamist coalition moving to create a regime that institutionalized Islamic religious values.
Westerners looked at Egypt and saw what they wanted and expected to see. They looked at Egyptians and saw themselves. They saw a military regime operating solely on brute force without any public support. They saw a mass movement calling for the overthrow of the regime and assumed that the bulk of the movement was driven by the spirit of Western liberalism. The result is that we have a showdown not between the liberal democratic mass and a crumbling military regime but between a representative of the still-powerful regime (Shafiq) and the Muslim Brotherhood.
If we understand how the Egyptian revolution was misunderstood, we can begin to make sense of the misunderstanding about Syria. There seemed to be a crumbling, hated regime in Syria as well. And there seemed to be a democratic uprising that represented much of the population and that wanted to replace the al Assad regime with one that respected human rights and democratic values in the Western sense. The regime was expected to crumble any day under the assaults of its opponents. As in Egypt, the regime has not collapsed and the story is much more complex.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad operates a brutal dictatorship that he inherited from his father, a regime that has been in power since 1970. The regime is probably unpopular with most Syrians. But it also has substantial support. This support doesn’t simply come from the al Assads’ Alawite sect but extends to other minorities and many middle-class Sunnis as well. They have done well under the regime and, while unhappy with many things, they are not eager to face a new regime, again likely dominated by Islamists whose intentions toward them are unclear. They may not be enthusiastic supporters of the regime, but they are supporters.
The opposition also has supporters — likely a majority of the Syrian people — but it is divided, as is the Egyptian opposition, between competing ideologies and personalities. This is why for the past year Western expectations for Syria have failed to materialize. The regime, as unpopular as it may be, has support, and that support has helped block a seriously divided opposition.
One of the problems of Western observers is that they tend to take their bearings from the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. These regimes were genuinely unpopular. That unpopularity originated in the fact that the regimes were imposed from the outside — from the Soviet Union after World War II — and the governments were seen as tools of a foreign government. At the same time, many of the Eastern European nations had liberal democratic traditions and, like the rest of Europe, were profoundly secular (with some exceptions in Poland). There was a consensus that the state was illegitimate and that the desired alternative was a European-style democracy. Indeed, the desire to become part of a democratic Europe captured the national imagination.
The Arab Spring was different, but Westerners did not always understand the difference. The regimes did not come into being as foreign impositions. Nasserism, the ideology of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who both founded the modern Egyptian state and set the stage for an attempt at an Arab revolution, was not imposed from the outside. Indeed, it was an anti-Western movement, opposed to both European imperialism and what was seen as American aggression. When Hafez al Assad staged his coup in Syria in 1970, or Moammar Gadhafi staged his in Libya in 1969, these were nationalistic movements designed to assert both their national identity and their anti-Western sentiment.
These were also unashamedly militaristic regimes. Nasser, inspired by the example of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, saw his revolution as secular and representing mass sentiment, but not simply as democratic in the Western sense. He saw the military as the most modern and most nationally representative institution. He also saw the military as the protector of secularism.
The military coups that swept the Arab world from the 1950s to the early 1970s were seen as nationalist, secularist and anti-imperialist. Their opponents were labeled as representing Western interests and corrupt and outmoded regimes with close religious ties. They were not liberal regimes, in the sense of being champions of free speech and political parties, but they did claim to represent the interests of their people, and to a great extent, particularly at the beginning, they earned that claim.
Since the realignment of Egypt with the United States and the fall of the Soviet Union, with which many of these states were allied, the sense that these regimes were nationalist declined. But it never evaporated. Certainly they were never seen as regimes imposed by foreign armies, as was the case in Eastern Europe. And their credentials as secularists remained credible. What they were not were liberal democracies, but they weren’t founded as such. From the Western point of view, that delegitimized everything else.
What the Westerners forgot was that these regimes arose as expressions of nationalism against Western imperialism. The more that Westerners intervened against them, as in Iraq, the more support at least the principle of the regime would evince. But most important, Westerners did not always recognize that the demand for democratic elections would emerge as a battleground between secular and religious tendencies, and not as the crucible from which Western-style liberal democracies would emerge. Nor did Westerners appreciate the degree to which these regimes defended religious minorities from hostile majorities precisely because they weren’t democratic. The Copts in Egypt cling to the old regime as their protector. The Alawites see the Syrian conflict as a struggle for their own survival.
The outcome of the Egyptian election, which now pits a former general and prime minister of the Mubarak regime against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, demonstrates this dilemma perfectly. This is the regime that Nasser founded. It is the protector of secularism and minority rights against those who it is feared will impose religious law. The regime may have grown corrupt under Mubarak, but it still represents a powerful tendency among the Egyptians.
The Muslim Brotherhood may win, in which case it will be important to see what the Egyptian military council does. But the idea that there is overwhelming support in Egypt for Western-style democracy is simply not true. The issues Egyptians and those in other Arab countries battle over derive from their own history, and in that history, the military and the state it created played a heroic role in asserting nationalism and secularism. The non-military secular parties don’t have the same tradition to draw on.
As in many Arab countries that underwent Nasserite transformations, the army remains both a guarantor against Islamists and of the rights of some religious minorities. The minorities are the enemy of the resurgent religious factions. Those factions may win, but regardless of who prevails, the outcome will not be what many celebrants of the Arab Spring expected. We are down to the military and the Islamists. The issue is no longer what they are against. This year’s question is what they are for. This is not Prague or Budapest and it doesn’t want to be.