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Outside editorial: Egypt's second spring

Posted: June 6, 2012 - 11:06pm

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

The Arab Spring of 2011 was a moment of great change and hope in Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world. The autocrat who had ruled for three decades, Hosni Mubarak, had to resign in the face of massive protests by a people who were tired of being silenced and brutalized. A broad-based uprising, the Egyptian revolution seemed to open the way toward a more humane and democratic future.

It was probably too much to hope that the journey would be an easy one, and it hasn’t been. The military took over running the government after Mubarak’s departure in February 2011, but before long it was the target of discontent for moving too slowly to implement reform.

In November, crowds returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square clamoring for the army to relinquish control and demanding that a presidential election be held sooner rather than later. The generals grudgingly agreed to an accelerated plan to hand over power.

In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the biggest share of seats went to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed under Mubarak and is distrusted by many secular Egyptians, as well as Christians. That distrust deepened when the group reneged on its promise not to run a candidate in the presidential election.

The sentiment helped propel a former Mubarak aide, Ahmed Shafiq, into a June 16-17 runoff against Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. Think of Shafiq as the candidate the military would like to see victorious.

It’s a bitter, high-stakes contest, with Morsi accusing Shafiq of planning a new reign of repression and Shafiq contending that Morsi would take Egypt “back to the dark ages.” Roughly half of voters voted for neither in the first round. But unable to unite behind a more liberal alternative, they will be stuck with one or the other of the evils they rejected.

Clouding the outlook still further was a court verdict Saturday sentencing Mubarak to life in prison. Good news for Egyptian democracy? Not entirely.

Demonstrators turned out again, furious that Mubarak was acquitted on corruption charges and other officials were cleared of ordering the killings. The former president was unceremoniously transferred to prison, but the fear is that he may ultimately be exonerated on appeal.

Extricating a country from a corrupt, authoritarian past is usually a messy affair, and it often proceeds two steps forward, one step back. Egypt has plenty of entrenched interests with a stake in blocking the nation’s embrace of modern values like pluralism and tolerance.

The Mubarak trial is, however, evidence that the worst of the old Egypt is gone — and the protests against the verdict indicate that Egyptians are not about to let it be restored. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood must be aware that if they intend to rule by force, they will be fighting a losing battle against their own citizenry.

They are not running in an election to gain permanent control of Egypt. They are competing for the opportunity to show what they can do for the people — who retain the right to change their minds.

The events of the last year and a half don’t prove the country is going to realize the highest hopes of the Arab Spring. But they show a stubborn attachment to the idea that the government has to rely on the consent of the governed.

For Egypt, that’s huge progress.

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