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Egypt: third revolution

Popular uprisings in the Middle Eastern nation have a long and complicated history The actual political situation is an amalgamation of eclectic influences

The second military coup in two years brings Egypt back to normal: ruled by the army. The country's modern history has been marked by two adversary forces, which occasionally cooperate: the army and the Muslim Brothers.

A brief historical overview: the Egyptian army, created by Mehmet Ali early in the 19th century, wins independence from the Ottoman Empire, if only to become a British protectorate in 1878. In 1928 a schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna, founds the Muslim Brothers, a by-product of colonialism, wherein the subjection and weakness of the state foster the dream of an Islamic golden age as an inspiration for renewal.

In 1922, Egypt formally becomes a parliamentary monarchy when London thinks it desirable to clothe in modern dress the colony that controls the route to India. Yet in the inter-war period some real political life emerges with the creation of Wafd (Delegation), a nationalist political party that, in street riots, rejects the pseudo-independence proclaimed by the British. This is the first of the three frustrated revolutions.

A second and false independence is again rejected by Egyptian nationalism on the eve of World War II; and the failure of the parliamentary experience in the face of British interests is the first big factor that drives the expansion of the Brothers, who welcome the army's proclamation of a republic in 1952. This is the second revolutionary attempt.

These three revolutions now combine as one, but one in conflict with itself, where party alignments are slippery

Between 1954 and 1970, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser essays a kind of socialism, anti-Marxist and passably secular, with aspirations to non-alignment. The Brothers are repressed by a government that, after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, no longer tolerates competition. Al-Banna has died in 1940, and the execution in 1966 of the organization's radical theorist, Sayyid Qutb, gives symbolic birth to jihadism. The Brotherhood seems to have two souls: one compatible with democracy, the other aspiring to world Islamic revolution.

Nasser dies in 1970, despairing at the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, and the second revolution languishes. His successors, Sadat and Mubarak, both generals, play hide-and-seek with the Brotherhood - now tolerated, now jailed. Until the latter's pretension to be succeeded by his son lights the fuse of a popular insurrection in 2011 - which, without the coup-de-grâce by the generals, could not have succeeded.

The Brotherhood, winning apparently honest legislative and presidential elections, now has the chance to lead a third revolution on a political-religious basis, promising morality and law. The elected president is Mohamed Morsi - a Brother, but no outstanding figure in the organization. The deputies write a constitution more Islamist than is pleasing to the West; and to keep the army happy, they recognize it as a state within a state.

What has now risen against Morsi is an amalgam of "national Islam" (Sami Nair's term), traditionally moderate, frightened of the president's dictatorial aims; the most Westernized, liberal and secular stratum of society; an ultraconservative Islam called Salafism, which sees the Brotherhood as an obstacle to the triumph of "real" Islam; and as always, the army, without which there cannot be lasting revolution in Egypt.

These three revolutions now combine as one, but one in conflict with itself, where party alignments are slippery and charged with extreme confusion. Those who rose against Morsi include the descendants of the failed liberalism of the first revolution; a post-Nasserite left that identifies with the revolution led by the army in the 1950s; but also the radical Islamism that accompanied Morsi for a while. Lastly, "national Islam" appears divided: for Morsi, or against him.

The outlook for this mix of different elements is reserved. The army is cracking down on the Brothers; and, if the latter cannot compete in the elections promised for 2014, these can only be a farce. In Egypt, then, what season will follow the Arab Spring?

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