WASHINGTON (JTA) — The outrage and political ferment that arose in Egypt after President Morsi’s recent decision to centralize power in his own hands is, in fact, the true beginning of the Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt two years ago. A newly empowered Egyptian people is not just fighting for freedom; they are using the tools of democracy in an ideological battle for the future of their nation.
The fundamental change that has taken place in Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak regime — aside from the assumption of power by political Islam — is the newfound openness and freedom of expression enjoyed by the people, the communication media and the political parties. The transformation is remarkable. Where there was once a ”police state” in which people feared government agents who enforced a ban on all anti-establishment activity — especially anti-government activity — today stands an Egypt in which journalism is more or less free and where criticism and demonstrations against the government are simply part of daily life.
The liberal forces who initiated the Egyptian uprising felt that the Islamists jumped on the bandwagon late and then stole the revolution. This impression was reinforced by Morsi’s first steps as president: disbanding the army council, unrestricted support for the Islamist-dominated houses of Parliament and the creation of a committee to draft a new Islamist-oriented constitution. These sophisticated political moves hinted at what was to come. With the added bona fides he garnered for brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Morsi took the opportunity to institute his latest draconian measures. The Islamists are using today’s opportunities to institute changes that may not be possible tomorrow.
The new round of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and throughout the country indicates an important change in Egyptian society. The Arab uprising that began in 2010 — disorganized, lacking leadership and without an ideological agenda — had one inchoate purpose: to depose Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and create a democratic nation in which the people themselves determine their own political future, not those sitting in the presidential palace. Today’s demonstrations are entirely different. Egyptians of all backgrounds — Islamist men and women, liberals and secularists, young and old, intellectuals and common folk — have taken to the streets to determine the character of the nation.
Will Egypt continue on the path to democracy or become an Islamic dictatorship? The outcome will have important implications for Egypt and the region.
At this tenuous moment, when so much is in the balance, it would be wise for the United States and Western nations to devote intensive care, effort and resources to strengthen the liberal parties and democratic forces in the Arab world. The time to do so is now, when the wheels are in motion and the opportunities exist.
It seems that the Egyptian government that came to power on the tray of a democratic election now seeks to shatter the dishes in an attempt to gradually eliminate the very steps that led to a real democratic country. The Egyptian people are saying no to this in Tahrir Square and across the country. Today, more than ever, they should not undertake this campaign alone.
(Shalom Cohen, the Baye diplomat in residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2005 to 2010.)