At face value, the current turmoil in Egypt appears to be a reaction to a power-grab in a fragmented society. At a deeper level, however, it illustrates the dangers of ignoring the fundamental changes that have transformed Egyptian society in recent decades.
These are the changes that enabled the “revolution” that swept Hosni Mubarak from office two years ago, opening the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to take power. Yet, they will also foil any attempt by Egypt’s new rulers to replicate the authoritarianism of the past regime.
Until now, transition was a game between three political forces: The Islamists, led by the Brotherhood; the liberals and nationalists; and those who ran the old regime — from the security establishment to those in business and parliament.
For two years, the well-organised Brotherhood mobilised, manipulated and built alliances with the loose and disorganised liberal camp to bring down the leaders of the old regime. The election last August of President Mohammad Mursi and the removal of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was the culmination of that process.
Now the game has changed. Once in power, the Brotherhood embraced a self-serving interpretation of democracy. Any previous promises of partnership and power-sharing subsided as the Brotherhood moved to take control of state institutions.
Such heavy-handedness confirmed the worst fears of the liberals that the Brotherhood’s support for democratic transition was only a means towards the end of Islamist authoritarianism. To many liberals, the stand-off with the Brotherhood has become a fight for their survival and of democracy itself.
The reality is more complicated as, at a deeper level, another dynamic is taking place. Three-quarters of Egyptians are under 50; more than half are under 30. Once excluded from politics, this majority is now central to it. The Tahrir Square protests are largely of their making.
It is this majority that has created the momentum in the political process, giving life to new parties, participating in elections and giving voice to an active public opinion. The younger generation is not organised in a single group. It is to be found inside all camps, from the liberal opposition, state institutions, the public at large — and even among Islamists.
What can be said is that this majority has a different political culture from the one embraced by the ruling 5 per cent — the old men leading the government and the opposition. It is a more pragmatic generation that disdains the sterile rhetoric and grand narratives beloved of past leaders.
Its members see themselves as active citizens, not the subjects of some benevolent ruler. While they may share the familiar grudges towards foreign powers for past injustices, they want a prosperous and well-run Egypt that plays an active part in the world. Above all, these are the people that question authority and are prepared to do so openly.
The inability of the old regime to deal with the expectations of this majority deprived it of the political support necessary for its survival. The inability of the “new” regime to do so is no less disappointing.
The result is a messy one. Some members of this new majority express their frustration through the political process, but end up fighting their own leaders as much as rival forces.
Some leave politics, waiting for something to happen. Others opt for more protest, attacking the police, blocking roads and setting government buildings ablaze. All this leads to a further weakening of the political process that increases frustration and anger — and thus the likelihood of more instability.
The Brotherhood may be able to get away with ignoring the liberal parties, but they are dangerously wrong to underestimate the demands for change by the younger majority.
The events of the past week give us a glimpse of how fast the situation can deteriorate — and how bad it can get. If the Brotherhood cannot be persuaded to change course, Egypt will travel — probably at an accelerating rate — along the road of prolonged instability.
Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is an Egyptian novelist and professor of politics at the American University in Cairo.