Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's warning Tuesday that the Egyptian government could collapse under the pressure of ongoing violent unrest highlights the degree to which the political and security situation in the Arab world's most important country has deteriorated. Many would argue secularists are necessary for a functioning democracy. However, it could also be argued that there is too much focus on Egypt's Islamists as the obstacle to democracy, when in fact secularists there are also exhibiting anti-democratic attitudes. Neither side appears to truly support democracy.
Egypt is not the only country facing a crisis of governance. Every single state in the region affected by the Arab Spring is struggling in varying degrees to govern, with Libya and Syria being the extreme cases. Separately, the democratic polity in Iraq, fashioned by the United States, also appears to be coming apart.
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Societies have been polarized by both the electoral rise of Islamists and ethnic and religious divisions (as is the case in Iraq), which explains this state of affairs to a degree. But a deeper malaise is influencing the situation: Arab countries are becoming increasingly more difficult to govern, regardless of whether the ruling elite is Islamist, secular, civilian or military. The reason for this is that the old autocratic order is either gone or is on its way out and a new democratic one is likely to remain elusive in the near term.
That said, there is also no turning back. If one thing was learned from the Arab Spring it is that governing solely through force is not sufficient in this new era. If anything, a purely coercive strategy is likely to backfire and exacerbate matters, as is the case in Syria.
Of course, the countries in the midst of civil war, like Syria, or the countries dangerously close to beginning one, like Libya or Iraq, are in an altogether different league. But even in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where governance is not completely broken, it doesn't matter which actor is governing because not one of them has a good solution. The issue is not about who can craft a better policy for stability; the issue is the lack of shared values, such as a willingness to deal with disputes that are politically critical to democratic governance.
In addition, there is an overemphasis on protest as a tactic as well as a distrust of government of any kind. It doesn't matter which political force gets into office because they all face the same objective reality. Democratic governance requires that people not focus only on the right to protest; they also need to accept and trust in the political process and work within constitutional limits.
But in Egypt, it appears that whichever faction is in opposition believes it must protest against the one is power, rather than use peaceful political means to attain power for itself. And if those opposition forces came to power, they would find themselves in the same position. In essence, none of the factions is behaving democratically.
Making matters worse, the decline of autocratic structures has created the opportunity for forces that do not represent any organized political party to engage in violence. The rioting by and clashes between rival Egyptian soccer leagues is a key example.
For now, the one institution that historically has held the modern Egyptian republic together, its armed forces, is hoping that the government and the opposition can agree on a strategy to end the protests and stabilize the country. Egypt's general staff realizes that imposing martial law is risky. But in the event that the administration of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi cannot handle the situation, the army may have no choice but to intervene since the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of trying to impose order by force.
For well over a century, there has been a great debate over the compatibility of democracy and Islam. The long autocratic age followed by the Arab Spring show that the lack of democracy is not purely due to religious views but rather a general lack of democratic values. It is not clear what will become of the very messy transition under way in Egypt, but because of its central status in the Arab world, events there could offer insights about what could happen elsewhere in the region.