I saw a very apt description of Egypt today--I think was on Foreign Affairs' Facebook page, though I can't find it anymore--one that gets at a central dilemma the country now faces. The description went something like this: the Islamists and radicals, though illiberal in spirit, are democrats while the so-called liberals and reformers and moderates are actually politically anti-democratic.
Of course, The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) isn't particularly liberal. In fact, quite a few of their beliefs and political programs appear more than a touch retrogressive. The group isn't a fan of the division between church and state; they are a Islamic male-dominated faction that treats women and Christians and other minorities as second class citizens; the group's support for holy war in Syria is alarming; the MB's power grab under now former president Mohamed Morsi--as evidenced in his cabinet and political appointments and in the process of writing the constitution--has been heavy-handed, to say the least.
Meantime, though, the MB does support democratic processes. And there's a simple reason for that. They have real, tangible advantages over all other political groups in Egypt: it is by far the best and most organized faction, the one that is best equipped to get people out of their homes, schools, and workplaces and into the voting booth. The MB has strength in numbers, and a democratic system translates this support into significant political power. The MB is well aware of this reality.
Egyptian reformers and liberals, on the other hand, ostensibly are in pursuit of increased political freedom, equality, and expression--classic tenets of liberal philosophy. However, they are not democrats, at least not at this point. They support democracy as long as they win; once they lost elections and discovered that they couldn't get what want they wanted via democratic mechanisms, they turned on Morsi and the entire democratic system as well. This might sound like a harsh assessment, but it's the truth.
As we now know, the liberals have won the day, for now. The army intervened, deposing Morsi and his government and elevating the head of the Constitutional Court to the presidency and a batch technocrats to lead the Egyptian government. These moves have sparked celebrations in Egyptian streets and city squares. But let's take a step back.
What has happened today isn't good for Egypt's long-term prognosis. At a minimum, nothing has changed. The MB is still the most cohesive and organized political group, and has numbers on its side. The MB's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), will very likely win, and win big, at the next round of elections, which will send them right back to political prominence, allowing them to impose their illiberal vision of politics on the state and society. And the so-called liberals will continue to be sore losers, seeking extra-democratic ways to achieve their preferred political outcomes.
At the extreme, the army's intervention could lead to disastrous results, potentially civil war. The MB and its supporters, feeling threatened by the liberal-military coalition and believing the army will never let the Islamists exercise political power, could lash out and resort to violence. It's a very delicate situation. The MB must be angry and resentful at what's happened, thinking that their legitimate right to rule was illegally pulled from them without recourse. It's up to the leadership within the MB and the FJP to channel these sentiments into actions consistent with democratic political rules and norms. But if they are unable or unwilling to do so, then watch out. Revenge-seeking behavior will in all likelihood lead to violence and bloodshed.