The military takeover of Egyptís democratically elected government marks the worst kind of setback for the Arab worldís still-nascent democracy movement. The coup seemed bound to spark violence in the streets, so Fridayís gunfire and bloodshed were no surprise.
The short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist with close ties to Egyptís once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, was a cornucopia of missteps and overzealous efforts to impose Islamic law on Egyptís multisectarian society. Morsi no doubt believed he had a popular mandate, but the result wasnít what Egyptís secular-minded protest movement had sought.
The protesters didnít spill their blood fighting the dictatorship of former President Hosni Mubarak simply to watch another form of dictatorship take hold. Their mistake was in supporting Egyptís military, the power behind Mubarakís dictatorship, to remove Morsi. Having fought so hard for democracy, they chose the most anti-democratic option simply because Morsi didnít lead as they had hoped he would.
Egyptís constitution contained democratic solutions to check Morsiís power, but the protest movement wasnít patient enough to let that process work. And the military was more than happy to capitalize on the protestersí impatience.
A big factor working against Morsi was his failure to revive the economy ó an impossible task given the militaryís stranglehold on government-owned enterprises and the protest movementís deterrent effect on tourism, a major source of income.
High unemployment and other economic problems wonít disappear anytime soon, which means the disaffection that spawned Morsiís ouster is likely to continue. Expect more protests in Egyptís future.
More worrisome are the longer-term implications for democracy in the Arab world. There can be deadly repercussions when people fight hard to overcome dictatorship, only to have democracy yanked from their grasp. Look to the example of Algeria after the military took control to block an expected Islamist victory in 1991 elections. A bloody civil war ensued, giving birth to North Africaís most extreme Islamic militant movements.
Thatís not a result that Egypt, the Middle East or the United States can afford. Egypt must rededicate itself to democracy and the rule of law, because the alternatives are too horrific to imagine.