History has again repeated itself as farce. This time, the protagonists were Mohammed Morsi and the head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. On June 22, the General advised the President to take immediate steps to defuse a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control, to initiate a national dialogue, inclusive of all the opposition movements, and to express a commitment to building bridges across a highly fissured political landscape.
Egypt has just entered a tunnel darker than the one that, just a year ago, produced Mohammed Morsi and ushered in the short, sad reign of his Freedom and Justice Party. With the military’s ouster of the country’s only freely elected president, a new era begins with little promise of lasting solutions to the problems that plague the country.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are confronted with major structural adjustment challenges that cannot be solved without the help of regional and international donors and private investment. After decades of one-man rule, their economies are in tatters, political institutions are fragile, civic society is underdeveloped, and security has yet to be firmly established. Progressive minded secularists are engaged in an uneven battle with conservative Islamists intent on consolidating power. The situation in all three countries is fluid, dynamic and dangerous. Violence is never far from the surface, and when it flares up regimes are shaken and unable to mount an effective response. These close neighbours are entering new territory with an untested leadership and with an administrative apparatus sorely in need of technical assistance. Only Libya possesses sufficient natural resource wealth that properly managed can help it recover without international financial assistance. The military takeover in Egypt has quieted the street for the moment, it remains to be seen if in its aftermath the country can be put on a sounder political and economic footing. Like Egypt, Tunisia requires substantial foreign aid and investment to right its economy. Security, education, employment, all must figure prominently in national development strategies. Support for secularist parties is essential to balance political power and to avoid the rise of religious tyranny. In all cases, international actors should be supportive of locally generated solutions, and highly attentive to sensitivities about foreign intervention. Outside engagement should be broad-based, and include regional intergovernmental organizations such as the Arab League. Such engagement must be sustained over a sufficient period of time to increase the likelihood that there will not be political and economic backsliding.
Pity the poor dictator whose quest to modernize ends up sowing the seeds of his destruction. There is the exquisitely decadent Ben Ali clan in Tunisia, which struck a bargain with the Third Estate, allowing it more freedom, prosperity, mobility than has any other state in the region, as long as it kept its head down in matters political. But educated people, middle class people, people who travel freely, who have access to modern communication technology, and, most importantly, who have a sense of personal empowerment, can be bought off or shut out for just so long. When the economy went bad due to the aftershocks of the global financial crisis, Ben Ali ran out of inducements, and when the army he kept small to avoid competition refused to fire on the people, and his much larger police force was cowed into inaction, he ran out of threats. Within days the modernizing but greedy Tunisian plutocracy was forced to flee this most European of Maghrebi states. This is a scenario that has been played out all too many times, and not only in this politically benighted corner of the world.