CAIRO - Several million demonstrators add up to a considerable force that no elected leader can ignore.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have a lot more people demonstrating against them than ever took the streets against former president Hosni Mubarak.
And still, given the off-with-their-heads rhetoric on both sides, the latest protests were overall more peaceful than others in recent months and years. Not a bloodbath; more like a street festival. No bread riots; more a revolt of a strangled middle class. Nor was Islam the central object of attention here, but rather a paranoid secret organization that wants to lock a tolerant 7,000-year-old culture into a prison of sanctimonious doctrine.
Making a country into a laboratory to conduct pedagogic experiments requires either a lot of time, or means applying a great deal of pressure.
It goes without saying that revolts against elected presidents are not a recommended course of action in parliamentary democracies. But it's an all-too-common scenario for post-revolutionary, post-authoritarian transitional systems: Expectations are huge, the economy beleaguered, institutions weak, the old regime is destructive, and new politicians lack experience. So taking to the streets may be about the only option left.
Nobody knows who will be governing Egypt by the end of this week. Morsi? A transition president? The army? The attacks on the grandiose Muslim Brotherhood headquarters -- a symbol of their ambitious claims to power -- and with them, the first casualties in the upheavals, could presage an escalation of violence.
But there is also a certainty: the Muslim Brotherhood that a year ago looked just about unbeatable -- Morsi winning the election seemed back then like the crowning touch for Islamist victory -- has failed spectacularly.
The Brotherhood, the mother organization of so many Islamist groups across the Muslim world, has become the ballast for religious groups in the whole region. But its show of piety couldn’t mask the political shortcomings.
Many conservative Egyptians see this piety as an attempt at monopolizing faith itself. Muslim brothers are not only not the better politicians, they’re not even the better Muslims. And that perception spread amongst Egypt’s people – this too is the sort of thing typical of transitional systems – with lightning speed.
If the Muslim Brotherhood were smart, it would step back right now, read a few manuals about inclusion, and try again in a couple of years’ time. Part of the Egyptian population prefers religious parties, and this group of voters needs an offer corresponding to their concerns – otherwise it will fall prey to radicals.
If the opposition were smart, it would give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to fulfill that role for Egyptians. But mainly: it would not interpret the millions who are anti-Morsi as potential for helping that catastrophic old men’s club win power.
What would make most sense of all is for Egypt’s politicians to stop seeing their country as someone's personal trophy.