It's understood that societies exert pressure on their members in various general ways - the state through laws and penalties, the economic order through the demands of employment and unemployment, the society through various forms of persuasion, condemnation and sometimes illegal intimidation. Of course there are also rewards and inducements of various kinds. Egypt is no exception.
Egyptians in impressive numbers and with great courage, rebelled against an oppressive government. What's happened?
The military and 'security establishment', semi-independent organs of capricious and brutal repression, escaped scott-free. The entire power of the state detached itself from the state and did what it pleased. In return, the popularity of these institutions, known for torture and murder, soared. The 'revolutionaries', or more accurately the people dissatisfied with the old order, divided into a more or less liberal, secular opposition, Islamists of various kinds, and a tiny remnant of true left-wingers opposed to the army and police. (The division was rough and the parts themselves diverse, but a rough picture will do.) Virtually all society's anger was channelled into intergroup dissension, and away from the army and police.
Where was the government in all this? There was no government, but only a few officials and representatives who came to power in a disputed election, under a constitution decreed by some generals without the slightest hint of democratic procedure, and interpreted by those same judges who so often presided with equanimity over the injustices and oppression of the old régime. They and the army destroyed every attempt by the Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, to establish something like a state. There was no legislature; the army through its cabinet posts loomed over the executive branch, and the judiciary led the way in making sure these constraints could not be overcome.
The opposition, largely spectators in this demeaning circus, developed an ideology in line with the increasingly contemptuous approach of the army and police to the efforts of the elected officials to govern. This ideology had two main components.
The first was to pretend that the non-government was a government, and therefore responsible for the failure to govern. The army, police and judges responsible for this failure were entirely exempted from responsibility for its consequences.
The second was to offer, with great pretense of sagacity, an absurd theory of democracy according to which the non-government, contrary to the most obvious appearances, was authoritarian. It was authoritarian because democracy, it seemed, was not about majority rule, but about giving the minority some unspecified but large share of power. Any attempt by the government to assert its authority against the security establishment, or to populate state institutions with its own choices, was welcomed with pretentious horror - even the epithet 'fascist' was shamelessly attached to these quite normal attempts to govern. Meanwhile people went hungry. The opposition made no attempt to help them, but very occasionally used them as a stick to beat the 'government' down some more.
Why did this happen? Whatever the whole story, part of it had to do with class.
The revolution was, according to the slogans, for freedom. To its instigators, largely middle-class, that meant civil liberties and exemption from repressive social constraints. As might be expected, their ideals amounted to classic liberalism. To much of the rest of the population, freedom meant above all democracy. Now, they thought, we get to decide how things run. And most of this group were Islamist. Their ideology was anti-liberal, all about social regimentation and at best indifferent to individual liberties. But this was no ordinary confrontation of liberal and anti-liberal forces. It intensified and festered from refusal to acknowledge a great big elephant in the room.
This elephant was deep-seated inequality of opportunity. The liberals were fighting an oppressive social order from which they had largely enjoyed independence. The anti-liberals represented those for whom there was no such escape.
The liberals realized with increasing clarity that what they really feared was not dictatorship but the imposition of an Islamic lifestyle. Any other sort of freedom didn't really matter. They could hardly have be clearer about their priorities: had they really cared about civil liberties, they would never have come to embrace as saviors the murdering, torturing army and police. As for democracy, they had discovered what they could not admit: it was their enemy, the very instrument that sought to on them impose an Islamist lifestyle. It was this discovery that engendered their absurd, pretentious notions of a democracy that had to be 'so much more' than vulgar majority rule.
The liberals did have one thing right: democracy is indeed a tyranny of the majority, limited only by self-imposed constraints. And the liberals may have had excellent reason to fight democracy in Egypt. But, incredibly, they did not or could not recognize that their fight was only for the privileged few. For the majority, that fight was already lost, and no political arrangements could reverse their defeat.
The most convenient way to see this is in its most prominent aspect, the position of women. Middle-class or upper-middle class women in Egypt had some freedom. They had homes and hangouts in which they could almost dress and do as they please, yet be treated with respect. Of course this was worth a great deal, almost everything to them, and middle-class men had similar life-style concerns. This was well worth fighting for, even if it meant promoting an absurd ideology and hoping for a puppet government under the paternal eye of the criminally repressive police and military. In short it was worth re-establishing the old order.
But this agenda could make sense only to the less deprived segments of society. For the rest, there was no escape. The old order had not protected them and a new old order would not be able to do so. They had to accept Islamic constraints. For them, the liberal agenda was a pipe dream.
Everyone knew this, but no one said it. Everyone had seen what was essentially an Islamist social order arise after decades of failed though persistently repressive secularist governments. For most women, liberty had already been lost. Not for them the good job with the good salary and the trips abroad. They could never hope to defy the communities in which they lived. The liberty defended so passionately by the opposition was a privilege to which they could not aspire.
That is why the revolution degenerated into a poisonous stalemate. The liberals had a certain constituency that they could not in short order expand, because they had nothing to offer the lower orders of society. The lower orders, for whom freedom was out of reach, wanted at least democracy, the power of collective self-determination. Since this was only a threat to the better-off strata of society, they too could not expand their support. The result was increasing and increasingly dangerous polarization, all to the benefit of the very repressive institutions whose excesses prompted the revolution in the first place. The liberals might gain temporary advantage if people believe they can offer competent government, but they would be just as crippled in power as the Islamists:T the police and military will ensure the continuance of an order over which they so profitably preside.
Could things have gone differently? Could they still? The liberals could accept democracy. Failing that, they could and can prevail only if they accept what the Islamists accepted many years ago - that the road to power had to lead through society itself. The Islamists achieved what they achieved, social transformation and an electoral majority, by working with and for the poor in the slums. They cared about the poor or at least catered to them, when no one else did, not in any useful way. The liberals can win only if they travel that same long hard road. They can get behind the efforts of the left and the trade unions to improve the lot of 'the people'. Otherwise, they can content themselves with counter-revolution.