The Arab Spring has failed. Angry crowds ransacked the offices of Egypt’s democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, this week just as they once forced their way into the marble palaces of the region’s dictators. The mob set the place on fire and if there had been a statue of the president they would surely have toppled it.
What is happening in Egypt is not just part of a global revolt against austerity or a protest against the yawning gulf between rich and poor. It marks the death of an idea: that greater political choice and free speech could swiftly transform the Middle East. That turns out to have been a Western mirage in the desert. None of the European points of reference, from the uprisings of 1848 to the toppling of communism in 1989, really applied to the modern Arab world, not to the teeming urban poor of Cairo, nor the frustrated medical students of Bahrain nor the warlords of Libya.
We wanted a different outcome. We wanted dictatorship to be replaced by democracy. Instead it was replaced by the escalating collapse of nation states. In the squares and streets of Cairo we can watch this tumbling-down in real time. There are plenty of men with weapons in the mob; guns have been flooding in from the Libyan surplus stockpiles and amateur armourers make improvised ones, called fards, that fire birdshot. These were fired at President Morsi’s HQ this week. Because the police are all but invisible, because there has been a twelvefold increase in armed robberies since the 2011 “Spring”, because the murder rate has increased 300 per cent, the small arms market is booming.
In all other respects, though, the economy is shrivelling. One quarter of the population are struggling to live below the very low Egyptian poverty line. Unemployment has soared. To keep fuel and food subsidies – and thus head off further unrest – President Morsi has dipped into foreign reserves, which have plunged from $36 billion before the Spring to $13 billion last March.
You could put this down to Mr Morsi’s incompetence, or at least to the failure of his Muslim Brotherhood to reinvent itself as a governing class. More charitably, you could blame the huge corruption and wastefulness of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. But it is a more general malaise. The Egyptians were rightly proud that they (like the Tunisians before them) were able to unseat their dictator themselves rather than by a Western invasion in the manner of Saddam Hussein.
That brief satisfaction has now given way to fury that the State can no longer meet expectations of security or prosperity – and a gathering sense that the Islamists are actually afraid to govern, or to accept the consequences of leadership. Thus Mr Morsi eagerly accepted $4 billion from Qatar and Saudi Arabia this year because it was easier to be in hock to Arab oil-producers than to swallow the conditions of an IMF rescue package.