The military coup that has overthrown Egypt's first democratically elected president and led to the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders across the country poses an enormous danger not only for Egypt's democratic transition, but for the democratic hopes of the entire Arab world as well.
The fact that the coup was undertaken with massive popular support is a sign of the enormous difficulties faced by the Muslim Brotherhood during its first turn in power. President Mohamed Mursi's government struggled to address Egypt's inherited economic and social crises in the face of the enormous public expectations created by the 2011 revolution, whose protagonists sought not only freedom, but also economic development and social justice.
Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood was also a victim of its own mistakes, particularly the failure of Mursi and his government to reach out to the secular opposition, elements of which had contributed to his election. The Mursi government seemed incapable of understanding that a slim electoral majority is not enough, especially nowadays.
Indeed, the breadth of the opposition to Mursi reflects a major global tendency toward the empowerment of the educated and connected middle classes, whose members tend to be suspicious of political parties and demand more direct political participation. In this sense, Egypt's difficulties differ only in scope, not in kind, from those faced by governments in Turkey, Brazil, and even Europe.
Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood dominated government from its first days in power. But it also faced opposition from a variety of other, far less democratically minded, forces, including holdovers from Hosni Mubarak's regime, who continue to wield influence in official institutions. The judiciary, for example, dissolved the first elected legislative assembly. Likewise, the interior minister refused to protect the Brotherhood's headquarters from repeated attack.
Moreover, some secular intellectuals demonised the Brotherhood. Like their Algerian counterparts – who in 1992 approved of the Algerian army's suppression of an electoral victory, leading to years of brutal fighting that left perhaps a half-million dead – many Egyptians didn't mind repressing radicals.
Mursi and the Brotherhood also faced competition from Saudi-backed Salafists. Indeed, on the night of the coup, these ultra-conservatives appeared together with military leaders and the secular political leader Mohamed ElBaradei to announce Mursi's overthrow.
The prospects for Egypt's democratic transition have become increasingly difficult to predict, but one thing is clear: the military cannot and must not be trusted. During the period after the fall of Mubarak, when the army exercised full power, 12,000 civilians were charged in military courts, virginity tests were imposed on women (particularly those protesting against the military), demonstrators were killed, and myriad human-rights violations were committed with impunity.
Of course, it is possible for soldiers to assure a transition to democracy, as they did four decades ago in my homeland, Portugal, following their overthrow of the Salazar/Caetano dictatorship. But the record of military-led transitions elsewhere has been poor: democracy may be proclaimed to be the coup's raison d'être, but the transition stops there. Moreover, in this case, the Egyptian army appears far more interested in protecting its enormous economic interests than it is in securing the benefits of a civilian government responsive to its citizens.
Trust should still be put in young Egyptians and their demands for freedom and democracy – demands that link the movement that overthrew Mubarak to the demonstrations that led to Mursi's removal. But the predominant goal should be to support the creation in Egypt of a pluralistic society that defends the rights of all to political participation and free and fair elections. Today, this requires opposition to any Mubarak-style repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Immediately following the coup, the European Union adopted an ambivalent position toward it. This, too, is reminiscent of Algeria in 1992, when most European governments supported the annulment of the radicals' electoral victory. (Likewise, the EU refused to recognise Hamas's electoral victory in Gaza in 2006.)
Continuing fear of political Islam in much of the West explains past support for dictatorial regimes. Today, the EU and the US should demand the liberation of all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mursi, and the integration of the Brotherhood into any political solution.
The international community should also be concerned with the coup's regional implications. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's declaration of support for the coup is a sign that some want to turn today's struggle in the Arab world into a bloody contest between radicals and secularists. In the long term, any crackdown on the Brotherhood would lead its members and supporters – already bitterly disappointed in democracy – to reject elections entirely. That outcome could have a very negative impact on radical movements elsewhere. For many, the extremists who criticised the Brotherhood and other radical parties for choosing a democratic route to power will have been vindicated, and a new wave of violence in the region may begin.
Hope remains that Egypt will not become Algeria in 1992 (or Chile in 1973). But to avoid that grim fate, it is imperative that Muslim Brotherhood members' fundamental rights now be protected.
US President Barack Obama, who has expressed deep concern about the overthrow of Mursi, is perhaps the only leader able to mediate in such a situation and work for a consensus solution that prevents a civil war. To achieve this, he would need to use all of the leverage at his disposal, including cutting off the massive military assistance that the US provides to Egypt's armed forces, as he has threatened to do. He can also use the reserve of trust that he established by reaching out to the Brotherhood during Mursi's presidency.