In response to a December 24 bombing in the town of Mansoura, the Egyptian government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The decision, which came despite the fact that an al Qaida affiliated group—Ansar Bayt al Maqdis—took responsibility for the blast, was a depressing, if inevitable, continuation of Egypt's post-Mubarak course. As the country approaches the third anniversary of the January 25, 2011 Revolution, democracy has not triumphed. A new dictatorship, much more violent than the one it displaced, is cementing control. This time, it enjoys the express backing of the vast majority of non-Islamist political forces, including self-proclaimed liberal parties. Egypt has returned to the status quo ante, not of January 24, 2011, but of the dark days of the 1950s, when the Free Officers, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, consolidated their rule by destroying all opposition, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt’s liberal parties.

By declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, the Egyptian government has given itself the power to imprison individuals solely on account of their association, with no proof of violent conduct. Even more seriously, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior has stated that taking a leadership role means a life sentence, and organizing a Brotherhood demonstration could lead to the death sentence. The consequences of this go well beyond targeting Islamist opposition to the coup; both the state- and privately owned pro-military media condemn all opposition, Islamist and non, as being secret members of the Brotherhood. Designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization threatens all opposition to the military-backed order.

There were many reasons to be pessimistic about the Revolution's prospects: Egypt's endemic poverty; the weakness of civil society; the absence of organized political parties, aside from the Muslim Brotherhood, with deep roots; the sharp ideological divisions between political groups; and the overbearing and omnipresent security services and military, both of which remained largely intact after the uprisings. 

The revolutionaries failed to recognize the extent of the structural challenges to building a liberal democracy, challenges that may have doomed the prospects of any democratic transition. They should have seen the political process that began with Mubarak’s resignation as a down payment toward a democratic future. But, rather than working with the Islamist forces who had been their allies in the January 25 Revolution, the revolutionaries called their political rivals traitors, transforming them into enemies of the revolution. Revolutionaries eschewed formal politics in favor of demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes, crippling the legitimacy of the elected Brotherhood government. They ignored the fact that the Brotherhood, unlike the military, could be removed from office peacefully by the ballot box.

The notion that elimination of the Brotherhood would produce a liberal democratic order was wishful thinking. The revolutionaries’ strategy succeeded all too well, prompting a victory not for democratic forces but for the reputation of the military. Polls throughout the post-Mubarak period repeatedly confirmed the popular support for the military and the lack of support for non-Islamist political parties. This has paved the way for the return of a chauvinistic nationalist discourse in which no conspiracy theory is too bizarre: a former Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court justice (and prominent supporter of the military) claimed that President Obama is secretly a member of the Brotherhood, and Vodafone was recently accused of using puppets in commercials to communicate coded messages on behalf of the Brotherhood. 

Responsibility for the revolution’s failure lies primarily with Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition. By appealing to the military to remove the country’s first elected parliament and to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from political life, instead of organizing to defeat it in peaceful elections, they have sent two profoundly anti-democratic messages to the Egyptian people. First, that only the military is capable of solving Egyptians’ political differences. Second, that the Egyptian people cannot be trusted to elect responsible political leadership. Both of these messages, even more than Islamists’ attempts to impose limitations on rights and freedoms in the name of religion, represent a categorical repudiation of democracy’s fundamental premise: that people are capable of governing themselves, not perfectly, but adequately, and that the people, over time, manage their public life better than any authoritarian institution—military, civil, or religious. Rather than a celebration of democracy, the third anniversary of the January 25 Revolution will be a day for somber reflection.

For a full exploration on what went wrong in Egypt, read our January/February forum, “What Killed Egyptian Democracy?” led by Mohammad Fadel, which will be published online on January 21. Ellis Goldberg, Micheline Ishay, Nathan J. Brown, Andrew F. March, Akbar Ganji, and Anne Norton join the discussion.