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Troubled Egypt still offers reasons for hope

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Egyptians gather to protest military rule in Tahrir Square.

Egyptians gather to protest military rule in Tahrir Square.

Associated Press

For the last 10 weeks, American University of Cairo professor Ezzedine C. Fishere has been writing a serialized novel about a failed 2011 Egyptian revolution — one that is followed by military rule. This leads, in turn, to a second wave of protest and political chaos.

The novel predicts that it will take nine years for Egyptians to find their way out of this nightmare. But Fishere says today's younger generation — now faced with a standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and army generals — will find a way out sooner.

I believe Fishere is correct.

Of course, this week things look grim. Just before the final round of presidential elections during the weekend, the Egyptian military carried out a "soft coup" to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking control of both parliament and the presidency.

Two days before the runoff vote, a rushed court decision ruled unconstitutional the election law under which the Brotherhood won nearly half the seats in parliament. (All the judges had been appointed during the Mubarak regime.)

Then, the military moved quickly to dismiss the parliament and seize the power to make laws and control military matters. It also took charge of the process of drafting a new constitution, after which, the generals say, there will be new parliamentary elections.

After all this, many Egyptians expected Ahmed Shafik, the military's candidate for president, to win, but Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's candidate, eked out a victory. Shafik is not conceding, setting up a possible confrontation. Meantime, the Brotherhood insists that the shuttered parliament will convene, even as soldiers surround the building. No one knows what will happen next, but many Egyptians expect instability and violence.

So what reasons do I have to hold out hope?

First, even had the military not acted, the Egyptian public had already rejected Brotherhood attempts at Islamization. During my recent trip to Cairo, it was clear that the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood had fallen sharply since parliamentary elections in November.

Working-class Egyptians had voted for Brotherhood candidates because they were viewed as devout and honest. (Corruption is a huge issue in Egypt.) But many soured on the Brotherhood because its members delivered little during months in political office. When the group reneged on its pledge not to run a presidential candidate, many Egyptians felt it was too hungry for power.

The Brotherhood had also alienated most of the young revolutionaries who organized the Arab Spring revolt; the Islamists claimed revolutionary credentials but didn't stand with the young rebels against the police in Tahrir Square. They also alienated Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, as well as many urban women.

Moreover, Brotherhood leaders misjudged the country's level of religiosity. At first, they insisted they would not impose religious law, but as their power grew, they began calling at their rallies for implementation of Shariah. Instead of focusing on economic reforms in parliament, their members talked of rolling back women's rights, or banning alcohol or beach tourism.

"Egyptian society is not like Saudi society," says a liberal member of parliament, Emad Gad. "The majority of Egyptians want to be religious and at the same time to live their life. They will resist all kinds of laws which the Islamists try to pass."

Thus, in the first round of presidential elections, the Brotherhood's percentage of votes dropped by half from what it received in parliamentary elections. Had non-Islamist voters united around one candidate instead of splitting their votes among several, they would have easily knocked Morsi out.

So why did Morsi just win the presidency? First, the Muslim Brotherhood's social networks, especially in rural areas, can still deliver voters, which matters more when the turnout is lower. Also, some Egyptians believed the election of Shafik meant a return to the old order, with its corruption and repressive police. So they held their noses and voted for Morsi, as did others angered by the court decision disbanding parliament.

This leads to my second reason for a bit of optimism: Morsi's victory says less about his popularity than it does about the unpopularity of the old order and its candidate. This means that the army will be hard-pressed to restore the old order even if it tries.

Egypt is not Algeria, where Islamists and the military were willing to fight to the death and kill tens of thousands of civilians. Nor, in these times, is Egypt's military capable of imitating the Turkish army of decades past, which regularly seized power when it became dissatisfied with civilian rule.

This doesn't mean there won't be chaos and some bloodshed in the short term. But Egyptians have become more political and are learning from their mistakes; whoever holds power must deliver economic and police reforms, or there will be another revolution coming.

New political parties are forming. There will be pushback if Egyptians are squeezed between the army and the Islamists. Somehow I can't imagine that it will take nine years to escape from that trap.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.