David Ignatius
Opinion writer July 3, 2013

“Authoritarianism in the name of Islam is dead,” messaged one Egyptian activist last Sunday, as millions gathered in the streets to denounce the rule of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government.

What happened over the next few days combined elements of a popular uprising and a military coup. The mass protest against Morsi showed the strength of dissent. But the Egyptian army’s role in toppling Morsi Wednesday was a reminder that the danger of authoritarianism is still very much alive in the Middle East, whether it’s under religious or nationalist guise.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The United States so far has been largely irrelevant to events in Egypt. I wish the Obama administration had been doing more to back moderates in the Middle East, overall, but in Egypt, the United States deliberately played the role of mediator rather than decider. The army wanted a public American “green light” for its coup, but it didn’t get one.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said on this July 4th is that the Egyptian people are writing their own history. They may be making mistakes along the way, and I wish we weren’t seeing a general in uniform seizing the stage again. But for once, the Middle East conspiracy theorists who always see America as the controlling force in events seem to have been wrong. President Obama has been a back-seat passenger.

The target of this week’s protests was Morsi, but the mass demonstrations recalled the giddy days of the February 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The basic message was the same: We are citizens. We want dignity and human rights. We aren’t afraid of autocratic leaders or their thugs. That revolt led to military rule, too, but its spirit was one of idealism and democracy.

“It’s a second revolution,” Ahmed Said, a leader of Egypt’s National Salvation Front, told the Guardian newspaper. He was right. The danger is that, as in the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, we are in a prolonged period of violence and instability that will only end with a new dictator.

What’s fascinating is that the new challenge to religious parties in the Middle East transcends sectarian lines. The protest against the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni Egypt is matched by a similar renewal of dissent in Shiite Iran, where the 2009 Green Revolution was crushed by government repression.

The unlikely emblem of change in Iran is Hassan Rouhani, who was elected president last month. He’s part of the clerical establishment that has run Iran for the past three decades. So it’s premature to assume that Rouhani’s election signals any breakthrough in stalled negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

But Rouhani’s victory does tell us something about the Iranian public mood: Among the six candidates who ran in the June 14 election, Rouhani was the most critical of the status quo; he called for reforms and new ties with the West. The fact that he won 51 percent of the vote (with a 73 percent turnout) marked a break from the tutelage of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appeared to favor national security adviser Saeed Jalili.

“We have no other option than moderation,” Rouhani said during the campaign. What this will mean in practice isn’t clear, but Rouhani has urged in his writings that Iran engage with the West, rather than depend on Russia and China.

Protesters have also shaken the Islamic populism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been an “authoritarian rock star,” in the words of William Dobson, the author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve.” But even Erdogan triggered a backlash after years of squeezing the Turkish media, courts and military. “The shared experience of repression, combined with collective frustration at mounting top-down efforts to regulate public life . . . brought citizens from different walks of life together” in Turkey, wrote Emiliano Alessandri, Nora Fisher Onar and Ozgur Unluhisarciklion the Foreign Affairs Web site.

This new wave of activism in the Middle East isn’t pro- or anti-American. It’s something else — a movement of empowered citizens who don’t want the old secular dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak’s era, and don’t want a new Islamic authoritarianism, either. This core of “people power” surfaced in the initial “Arab Spring” of 2011, but a chill developed as the Muslim Brotherhood gained control in Egypt and chaos prevailed in Libya and Syria. Despite these setbacks, this week showed there is still a popular movement for democratic change that resists dictation from anyone.

“I have never seen anything like this, not even during February of 2011. This is a genuine popular movement, no organisation whatsoever,” tweeted Egyptian writer Bassem Sabry late Tuesday.

For U.S. officials, recent events are a reminder that the Middle East is still in the early stages of a long-running process of transformation. Morsi’s election in 2012 offered the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to show that it could govern Egypt effectively. It has flunked the test — and the Egyptian military has lost patience with the failed experiment.

On America’s Independence Day, we celebrate the triumph of our democracy. But David McCullough reminds us in his book “1776” that in January of that revolutionary year, George Washington despaired that “few people know the predicament we are in.” It took America another 12 years to write and ratify a workable Constitution. In the Middle East, the convulsive democratic transition is just beginning.

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