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July 31, 2014

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Can God save Egypt?

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When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below? To the north, you look down at a European supranational state system — the European Union — that is cracking up. And to the south, you look down at an Arab nation state system that is cracking up. It’s an unnerving combination, and it’s all the more reason for the U.S. to get its economic house in order and be a rock of global stability because, I fear, the situation on the Arab side of the Mediterranean is about to get worse. Egypt, the anchor of the whole Arab world, is embarked on a dangerous descent toward prolonged civil strife, unless a modus vivendi can be found between President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and his growing opposition. If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians. What has brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back into the streets, many of them first-time protesters, is the fear that autocracy is returning to Egypt under the guise of Islam. The real fight here is about freedom, not religion.

The decisions by Morsi to unilaterally issue a constitutional decree that shielded him from judicial oversight (he has since rescinded most of it after huge protests) and then to rush the completion of a new, highly imperfect, constitution and demand that it be voted on in a national referendum on Saturday, without sufficient public debate, have rekindled fears that Egyptians have replaced one autocracy, led by Hosni Mubarak, with another, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi and the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were late comers to the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution that ended six decades of military rule here. And because they were focused only on exploiting it for their own ends, they have grossly underestimated the deep, mostly youth-led yearning for the freedom to realize their full potential that erupted in Tahrir — and it has not gone away.

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog-food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

First, the Egyptian Army underestimated the tiger and tried to get it back in the cage. Now the Muslim Brothers are. Ahmed Hassan, 26, is one of the original Tahrir rebels. He comes from the poor Shubra el-Kheima neighborhood, where his mother sold vegetables. I think he spoke for many of his generation when he told me the other day: “We all had faith that Morsi would be the one who would fulfill our dreams and take Egypt where we wanted it to go. The problem (now) is that not only has he abandoned our dream, he has gone against it. ... They took our dream and implanted their own. I am a Muslim, but I think with my own mind. But (the Muslim Brothers) follow orders from their Supreme Guide. ... Half of me is heartbroken, and half of me is happy today. The part that is heartbroken is because I am aware that we are entering a stage that could be a real blood bath. And the part that is happy is because people who were completely apathetic before have now woken up and joined us.”

What’s wrong with Morsi’s new draft constitution? On the surface, it is not some Taliban document. While the writing was dominated by Islamists, professional jurists had their input. Unfortunately, argues Mona Zulficar, a lawyer and an expert on the constitution, while it enshrines most basic rights, it also says they must be balanced by vague religious, social and moral values, some of which will be defined by clerical authorities. This language opens loopholes, she said, that could enable conservative judges to restrict “women’s rights, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and the press and the rights of the child,” particularly young girls. Or, as Dan Brumberg, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, put it, the draft constitution could end up guaranteeing “freedom of speech, but not freedom after speech.”

The wild street demonstrations here — for and against the constitution — tell me one thing: If it is just jammed through by Morsi, Egypt will be building its new democracy on a deep fault line. It will never be stable. Egypt is thousands of years old. It can take six more months to get its new constitution right.

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Good article Mr. Friedman. I would add this footnote: It's not the first leader elected in a democratic vote in the mideast countries that matters. It's the second. As soon as Morsi vacates, either willingly, or by election, then the Egyptian government and people will be truly saved and on the road to democratic rule.

    CarmineD