Remember the euphoria early last year when long-established police states across the Arab world were tumbling down. Facile comparisons were made with the fall of communist states in Eastern Europe in 1989. Commentators spoke glibly of irrepressible political change in the age of the internet, social media and satellite television. Regime change from Tunisia to Bahrain and Damascus to Sanaa appeared easy and even inevitable.
Instead, history has gone into reverse as military governments clamber back into the saddle in Egypt or slaughter their people in Syria. In Bahrain, the al-Khalifa monarchy has crushed dissent and not much is new in Yemen, aside from the formal displacement of its old leader. Libya is in a state of semi-disintegration, while only Tunisia, where it all started, seems to be managing a successful transition to democracy.
A crucial moment in the demise of the great revolt of 2011 came last week as the Egyptian military dissolved the democratically elected parliament, degraded the power of the presidency to the advantage of the generals, and effectively restored the old authority of the security forces, insofar as they had ever lost it, to detain and torture at will. This weekend, the generals are deciding if they should go a step further and fix the presidential election in favour of their own candidate – President Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik – instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
It is not only in Egypt that the counter-revolution is triumphing. Everywhere, the fires of the Arab Spring are being stamped out as the rest of the world pays little attention. The defeat is not total. The Arabs are not yet going back to the suspended animation in which they festered for so long until the protests and revolts of last year. They are returning rather to a replay of the struggle for power which convulsed much of the region in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the fact is often ignored, this was a period – long before the benefits of Facebook and al-Jazeera – which saw mass movements and open dissent, as well as disastrous wars and military coups.
There was one phrase used last year during the first uprisings, which I found chillingly misleading and self-deceiving. It was about the nature of power in the Middle East and, indeed, everywhere else in the world. The phrase or slogan was: “The people have lost their fear”, as if the fear felt in Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus and Baghdad has been in some way similar to a psychological phobia of mice or bats and was now being displaced by a more realistic perception that there was not much to be afraid of.
I suspected, then, that there were far too many regimes in the region that knew all too well how to put fear back into their people. The process is well calculated, ordered from above and is aimed at creating a general mood of terror, often by targeting the most innocent. In Bahrain last year, this involved torturing highly respectable hospital consultants and nurses and forcing them to sign confessions that they were Iranian agents. In Syria today, young men of military age are dragged out of houses and executed in the street. This is not the work of shabiha sectarian gangs, but of regular soldiers ordered to teach people that rulers are still to be feared.
What went wrong? Will the revolutionary genie, so active and unstoppable last year, be incarcerated once again in the bottle from which it had so recently escaped? For all the over-simple explanations of what happened last year, there should be no doubt that there was a great popular revolt. Its astonishing initial success was rooted in the unity of aim and action between people who had previously detested each other, notably the Islamists and secular opposition.
In the moment of victory in Egypt, after the overthrow of Mubarak, the ingredients of success were forgotten. The Muslim Brotherhood, always edgy about its new-found allies, behaved as if the future inevitably belonged to it. It forgot that the military still held most of the instruments of power. It ignored the fact that though their role may have been romanticised abroad, they had been crucial in controlling the information about the uprising within Egypt, cultivating and co-opting the foreign media, and reassuring the US, European and other foreign governments that here was a revolution they could live with.
The overconfident Brotherhood overplayed its hand, forgetting its promise not to dominate parliament or run for the presidency. An important community such as the Copts, with plenty of grievances against the old regime, soon came to fear the Brotherhood’s intentions more than the resurgent military.
A basic problem in Egypt was that the security forces had sacrificed their leader, Hosni Mubarak, to avoid fundamental change and to retain their power and privileges. But this never amounted to a subterranean military coup as it is sometimes portrayed. The generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) can be pictured as masters of Machiavellian manipulation determined to maintain the status quo, but this is surely an exaggeration. They may have hoped for, but could not have forecast, the self-serving divisions of their opponents leading to a presidential run-off between Brotherhood and military candidates after the centre and left had been eliminated.
SCAF played skilfully on the mistakes of its opponents. Authoritarian governments everywhere justify their repression by saying it is necessary to prevent anarchy. SCAF made sure the state media fostered a sense of insecurity and economic instability, successfully using it to discredit street protests and to induce nostalgia for the certainties of the old regime.
In reality, Egypt has remained surprisingly peaceful, given its people’s appalling poverty, with 40 per cent of the population trying to live on £1.30 a day. A few months ago, I was in the vast Shubra district in Cairo, home to three million people, where many spoke nervously of a crime wave. But when I asked for examples, it was obvious there was no general breakdown of law and order. The biggest increase in crime was in car theft, with some 20,000 stolen in recent months; but given the huge number of cars taking advantage of cheap subsidised fuel in Cairo, the figure was not impressive.
Egyptians have low expectations of government, not surprising given the history of the past 5,000 years. Often, they agree with the old saying that their rulers “do as much harm as they can and as much good as they must”. During a recent foot-and-mouth epidemic, for instance, butchers in Cairo told me they were convinced that no measures were being taken by officials as they owned fish farms and wanted to up the price of fish.
The Egyptian police state and the privileged military caste are back in business, but, given popular Egyptian cynicism about their government, they may yet have difficulty stabilising their rule.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.