Like sharks that have tasted blood, the vast crowds that gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square this week wanted another victim -- and on Wednesday night, they got one. For the second time in less than 30 months, they forced a president from power -- and just like in February 2011, it was the army that wielded the fatal blow.
Democrats don't usually approve when the generals arrest democratically-elected presidents, nor when they suspend constitutions. And there was something almost comically surreal about the crowds who only recently were demanding that the army should keep its nose out of politics now letting off fireworks in celebration. But I suppose political coherence is not a quality one most readily associates with mob rule.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: revolutions are messy. They rarely deliver what they promise, and they tend to create as many problems as they solve.
Back in December 2011, I quoted the words of Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard university: “If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process.” Just two examples: the French revolution of 1789 was followed by a full decade of turmoil and terror; the Russian revolution of 1917 led to several years of brutal civil war. All too often, what immediately follows a revolution is even worse than what went before.
Too many Western governments seem to have fooled themselves into believing that by surfing on the back of a wave of popular unrest, they could wish away a whole generation of nasty Arab autocrats and replace them with nice liberal democrats (small l, small d) instead. The trouble is, as the New York Times neatly put it this week, that in Egypt "politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats." The Muslim Brotherhood, who would hate to be thought of as liberals, fought an election and won; but the secularists complained bitterly about the way the Brotherhood have been governing, so they took to the streets rather than the ballot box and now they're cheering on the generals.
There's no shortage of good reasons to be deeply critical of President Morsi's record in office. Undistinguished would be putting it kindly. The economy is on the ropes; law and order have broken down; there has been no attempt to forge a consensus over what kind of future is best for Egypt.
But the faults haven't all been on the Islamists' side. The secular liberals have forgotten one of the most important lessons of revolutionary theory: it isn't enough to mobilise the masses; they must also be organised. No organisation equals no power. You can destroy, but you can't create. And it's not good enough saying: "Look at all those people out on the streets" if you can't weld them into a coherent group with coherent demands. It's a lesson the Muslim Brotherhood learned well during their decades in the wilderness.
Perhaps the days of the party cadres and top-down edicts have long gone. But if the social media now offer new opportunities to spread ideas, then surely it should be possible to use those same opportunities to draw up manifestos and a list of principles on which the Tahrir Square revolutionaries can try to agree. It won't be as much fun, but without it -- or something like it -- they can hope for little more than prolonged chaos and disappointment.
As for Western governments, is expressing "concern" and appealing for "restraint" really the best they can do? How about some useful grass roots stuff, like training and funding civil society organisations: women's groups, human rights campaigners, yes, even lawyers and journalists. Building a democracy needs a lot more than a handful of election observers and a bucketful of platitudes.
Do the organising first, then hold the elections. In the interim, forge a unity government that represents as many strands of opinion as possible. It'll be messy, imperfect, and guaranteed to satisfy no one. But at least it might keep the traffic moving round Tahrir Square and offer the people of Egypt a chance of a better, more stable future.