CAIRO — The chants, the impatient anger and even the symbols were the same — right down to laser-generated messages of “Game Over” that were directed at Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011 and this week turned against the elected president carried to power by the Arab Spring.
Where Egypt’s bookend rebellions part company, however, is the psychology of the streets.
The protesters’ latest gambit — embracing a far more fluid definition of democracy than simply a ballot-box victory — raises questions about how soon the Egypt’s new military caretakers may be willing to return to elections and restore the constitution. It also suddenly thrusts one of the Arab world’s guiding nations into an uncomfortable quandary over the core goal of the region’s uprisings: Opening political space for all voices and views.
“This is a new revolution,” said 20-year-old college student Islam Ihab, using the phrase widely repeated by President Mohammed Morsi’s opponents who refuse to describe his downfall as a coup — which is exactly what Morsi and his backers say has happened.
The semantics and intellectual parsing on Egypt’s streets are studies in the competing visions of what the Arab Spring means.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was hounded for decades by Egypt’s leadership, sees the mutiny against him in uncomplicated terms: The powerful military stepping in to overthrow the country’s first elected president.
His opponents — who surged back into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday to mark Morsi’s anniversary in office — make a more nuanced case. They argue that Morsi has betrayed the spirit of democracy by favoring only his Islamist backers and ignoring critical problems such an economy in collapse.
To the protesters, their assault on Morsi’s authority represented a triumph of the true revolutionaries — the liberal and secular opposition that coalesced to drive out Mubarak more than two years ago.
“The protesters have done everything they can to justify this as an act of progress and not one of regression,” said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “It may not be so easy to sustain this kind of explanation.”
That’s because of the obvious irony of the past few days by putting Egypt back in the hands of the military brass. All sides share the same fears: Allowing the armed forces to step back into control also opens the way for a host of undemocratic forces to reassert influence such as the police and remnants of Mubarak’s regime.
The fire-starters of Egypt’s Arab Spring redux concede that the military is the only path to put the country back on course, but have no idea yet where that route will lead.
“The irony of the Egyptian Arab Spring is that while it brought forth new players, it has not changed the regime or the fundamental architecture of Egyptian politics,” wrote the Texas-based Strategic Forecasting Inc., a political analysis group. “The military remains the dominant force, and while it is prepared to shape Egypt cleverly, what matters is that it will continue to shape Egypt.”
Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert and dean of the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, said that while the military leaders of Egypt’s “soft coup” promise to return to democracy, this was also the open-ended pledges from Pakistan’s generals who most recently held power for three years after a coup in 1999.
Pakistan’s leading newspapers such as the English-language Dawn and The Express Tribune both ran the headlines “Coup in Egypt.”
“Every time you interrupt the democratic process you deepen the incompetence,” said Pakistani analyst Mosharraf Zaidi. “Every time (a civilian government returns) they’re starting from zero or sub-zero.”
Others wonder whether Egypt’s military may develop a role similar to the Turkish armed forces in the 1970s and 1980s, which repeated intervened in political affair by deposing leaders and demanding other so-called “corrections.”
Such concerns still seem distant among many protesters, however.
The bargain of the moment — with the military effectively in control — is one many are willing to accept to erase policies they claim sidelined, or even threatened, perceived foes of the Brotherhood such as liberals or Egypt’s Christian community, which has faced deadly attacks.
“For me, the concept of democracy has become vapid and is losing its meaning,” said Nazly Hussein, a 29-year-old activist who tracks reports of violence against protesters. “This is a revolution, and people are still fighting in the streets to remove a regime that has killed and is corrupt. … If an elected president has blood on his hands, he goes.”
Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger, also fully appreciated the contradictions of self-proclaimed pro-democracy protesters bringing down a democratically elected president. But he believed Morsi violated the trust that came with his narrow victory last year, which was helped by support from liberals and others who refused to back his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister under Mubarak.
“Is democracy accepting what comes from the ballot box?” he asked. “Or what ensures the continuation of the democratic process?”
These questions are not new or confined to the Arab Spring context.
In Europe, opponents of far-right factions such as Austria’s anti-immigration Freedom Party have decried their success in elections as “anti-democratic” despite the validity of the vote count. For weeks in Turkey, protesters have denounced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an autocrat even though his party has won successive elections for the past decade.
In Iran, whose relations with Egypt sharply improved under Morsi, state TV described his ouster as a “coup.” In a sign of political hedging, it later broadcast — without harsh comments — the swearing-in ceremony of interim President Adly Mansour.
But Egypt has put Washington and its allies far more off balance.
In a carefully worded statement Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” by the military’s move to topple Morsi’s government and suspend Egypt’s constitution. He said he was ordering the U.S. government to assess what the military’s actions meant for U.S. foreign aid to Egypt.
But Obama stuck closely to Washington’s middle-of-the-road approach by refusing describe Morsi’s ouster as a coup.
This portrayal also could sound at home on the Cairo streets.
Haitham Farouk, a 39-year-old oil company employee, said the Brotherhood “suffocated themselves” by forgetting about others.”They offered nothing for the country or for Islam,” he said, mocking the assertions by Morsi’s backers that they help restore Islamic values to Egypt.
“We used to pray before they came,” he said. “We prayed while they are in power, and we will pray after they leave.”
Sally Toma, a leading activist who has campaigned against military rule as well as the Brotherhood, has hopes “the military is now fixing its mistakes” by pushing too fast for elections after Mubarak’s fall.
Outside Qasr al-Qobba, one of the presidential palaces in Cairo where large anti-Morsi rallies gathered, 62-year-old retired government worker Nawal Ibrahim explained her interpretation of democracy. The election outcome, to her, cannot safeguard a president that is not seen as helping all in equal measure.
“This has been worse than (foreign) aggression,” she said. “When your own son stabs you, this is worse than an enemy.”
Then added: “I feel naked. I want a president that will cover me.”