Egypt's crisis opens wider debate over democracy's hold after Arab Spring

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As Egypt's political crisis tumbled toward its first night of major bloodshed last week, the country's army chief was pulled away for a phone call. It was one he couldn't easily ignore.

On the other end of the line was Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. He was calling to personally reinforce his strong backing to Egypt's new caretaker rulers. And, he reminded Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Friday, Saudi Arabia expected "wisdom" as events unfolded.

The subtext was clear: Egypt's upheavals will ultimately test the definitions of the Arab Spring and views on its role as a breeding ground for democracy in the region.

For nations such as Saudi Arabia, which have used all their resources to quell the calls for reform, nothing could be more soothing than having the Arab Spring's democratic credentials thrown into doubt. They may now increasingly point to Egypt as a cautionary tale about the aspirations of democracy to both validate their hold on power and further tighten crackdowns on perceived dissent.

Elsewhere — from Tunisia's political jockeying to the reshuffled Syrian opposition leadership — the sideline debates are now dominated by questions about whether Western-style political openness is the right fit for the complicated array of forces set in motion for the Arab revolts: empowered Islamists, anxious liberals and military forces and other institutions that see themselves as guardians of stability.

"Egypt is not going to change the fundamental idea that the Arab Spring is about democracy and democratic ideals," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. "It will change the conversation, though, to bring in more questions about who is ready for it."

Egypt's interim president has promised parliamentary and presidential elections early next year. But any timetable could be derailed by unrest or credible threats that voting could make matters even worse. Just hours after Monday's clashes that left more than 50 dead, the Muslim Brotherhood armed wing called for open revolt against the army.

Egypt, long the Arab world's de facto center, became the pillar of the pro-democracy rebellions after Hosni Mubarak was swept from power in 2011 in just 18 days of pressure from the streets. The whiplash revolt against President Mohammed Morsi — a year after his election — has brought a disorienting spectacle of celebrations, anger and worry across the region that all meet in one general spot: Whether belief in the power of the ballot box can fully recover.

For some Gulf states that have done everything they can to crush the Arab Spring inspirations, the reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood's downfall have been nearly euphoric.

The Saudi king — who backs Syria's rebels but will not allow hints of protest at home — lauded defense chief el-Sissi for helping Egypt escape from "a dark tunnel." The United Arab Emirates noted "satisfaction" in the toppling of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which are viewed by some Gulf states as a fifth column against their Western-backed ruling systems. The UAE on Tuesday promised a total of $3 billion in grants and no-interest loans in one of the first major pledges of aid since Morsi's fall.

"The Islamists have lost more than the presidency. They have lost the moral case. The Islamist brand has been damaged," said Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.

"The damage will transcend Egypt to neighboring Arab and Middle Eastern countries," he added. "Many Arabs now will take a second look at the Islamists and say, 'There is a huge divide between the rhetoric and the reality. No original ideas. No economic plan. They pursued similar policies to Mubarak."

But that's not the only collateral damage from Egypt, he said. The military's role in bringing down Morsi's government strikes at the "democratic future" in Egypt and elsewhere.

"After what happened in Egypt, the democracies in the Arab Spring countries are in danger," said Wathiq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies in Baghdad. "There is still fire under the ashes in these countries that could lead to widespread civil war and divisions."

The Arab world is a patchwork of governing systems from ruling dynasties to elected leaderships in place such as Lebanon and Iraq, but both mandate some degree of power- sharing to appease rival internal factions. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was born, critics of the Islamist-dominated national assembly opened calls for a new national unity government, but there appears to be no serious attempts to overturn the 2011 election results.

Laryssa Chomiak, director of the Center for Maghreb Studies in Tunisia, said events in Egypt might actually encourage Tunisians to finish up their constitution and hold new elections.

"They want to show they can do it here while the Egyptians couldn't," she said.

Still, the tone around the region has shifted considerably since Morsi's collapse. Questions about faith in Middle East democracy — until recently a fringe debate — are suddenly front and center.

On Monday, the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera — an important opinion shaper — held a web forum to discuss whether Western-style democracy in the region has suffered a setback by the rejection of Morsi, who has been held in an undisclosed location since last week. The Qatar-based broadcaster has been criticized by Egypt's military and others, including some staff members who resigned Monday, for perceived bias in favor of Morsi, who was backed by the Gulf nation and now leaves Qatar's rulers to retool their policies.

On the webcast, London-based political analyst Mamoon Alabbassi noted the apparent failures of Morsi's government — including Egypt's stumbling economy — but feared the precedent of letting the streets decide when a government should go.

"The only way you would know which is the bigger size (between Morsi's opponents and backers) is not from a helicopter view, where you count heads like you count sheep," he said. "It's from the ballot box."

Yet this circles back to the heart of Egypt's crisis: The claim by Morsi's opponents that it was he — not they — who betrayed democracy by allegedly concentrating power among Islamists and excluding others.

In many ways, it speaks to the wider questions of democracy's essence and evolution. Expectations of quick and seamless transitions from authoritarian rule to elections ignore the lessons of history. Through the centuries, post-revolution governments have taken years or longer to shake out. More recently, Iraq is still struggling to find political common ground in three-way rivalries among majority Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

"We should not be romantic when we see that a regime is brought down and expect that the next day we will have an ideal regime," said Nabil Bou Moncef, a senior analyst with Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper.

"We are witnessing a new wave of events that are shaping up the Arab Spring and Arab revolutions. ... We should not be surprised to see a long way until we reach an Arab democratic system," he said. "I am not surprised by what is going on. The West fought major wars and had bloody revolutions until they reached the current system."

In Egypt's neighbor Gaza, the governing Palestinian faction Hamas came to power in 2006 elections that highlighted the potential paradox of the ballot box. The West pushed for elections, but was troubled by the result and effectively snubbed militant Hamas in favor of its Palestinian rivals in the West Bank.

A Hamas-linked political commentator, Eyad al-Qarra, described Morsi's ouster as a "real setback for the Arab Spring," and could jeopardize legitimacy of all elections after the uprising.

Sufian Ahmad, a 52-year-old Gaza businessman, sees a greater worry: Undermining the idea that elections — and their outcome — are the ultimate expression of the Arab Spring.

"I think that the Arab Spring era is beginning to end," he said. "We are walking toward a new dark era colored with blood and violence."


Associated Press writers Max J. Rosenthal in Jerusalem, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, Paul Schemm in Cairo and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.