Today’s disturbances in Egypt over President Morsi’s attempt to put himself beyond the jurisdiction of the courts reminded me of a bleak conversation I had with an Egyptian liberal at a Liberal International congress some years before the Arab Spring.
He explained that, while he wanted to see democracy in Egypt, he was worried about what it might bring, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity and organisational ability.
This body might, he said, “only have to win once” so that once elected it would then entrench itself, abolish democracy, and impose a religiously-inspired dictatorship that would make the Mubarak government look benign by comparison.
There was some limited political pluralism in the Mubarak era – liberal parties could exist though were rarely allowed to win election to anything – and the fear that Morsi aims to snuff out even this political space must be what has driven an impressively-sized crowd onto the streets.
Egypt is not Syria or Libya, and certainly not Saudi Arabia – it has long had some political and religious liberty and some freedom for women.
But it is struggling with how to reconcile a desire for democracy with its religious traditions and it has no real model to follow, given that history and circumstances in Turkey are very different.
As the Middle East’s most populous and influential country, how Egypt eventually resolves this will be important for whether the Arab Spring breaks through against dictatorships elsewhere to bring lasting change or falls back into repression but simply conducted by different people.