WASHINGTON -- When the first demonstrations and then riots began tearing apart Cairo and other cities of the Middle East almost two years ago, this unusual "Arab Spring" inspired many good people across the globe to outbursts of idealistic hope.
Fall, ye autocrats, whether Mubarak in Egypt, ben Ali in Tunisia or al-Assad in Syria! For now cometh the new democracies never known in this biblical wilderness of authoritarian systems and structures!
John F. Kennedy was "ein Berliner" in order to be at one with the men and women of that great city, and we were all with the young of Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011.
But when we foreign correspondents who had covered the region for many years dared to purse our lips and even suggest, "Well, yes, but ..." many of us were brought up short by our more idealistic fellow citizens. They found us too pessimistic; we were nitpicking; and in the worst insult of all, we were the ultimate xenophobes, believing that the Arabs were not capable of our democracy.
I remember my esteemed friend, Arnaud de Borchgrave, one of the bravest and most realistic foreign correspondents, saying to me at the time, "And as you and I know, if they have real elections in these countries, the radical Islamists will win, and that will be the end of it all." Others have described this disappointing syndrome as "One man, one vote, one time."
Now, update to this Thanksgiving. By chance, the lovely dinner I went to here, given by a family who are deeply involved in hosting foreign diplomats and visitors from all over the world, had as guests the new Egyptian ambassador and his wife. Charming people.
Before the dinner, everyone had been complimenting the ambassador on what his new Islamic president, Mohamed Morsi of the historic Muslim Brotherhood, had accomplished just the day before. He had been instrumental, in the middle of a power grouping of the United States, Israel, England, France and Egypt, in getting the radical Hamas in Gaza to sign a ceasefire in its little war with Israel. Morsi was the undisputed hero of the salad, turkey and pecan pie courses; but then, at the coffee course, things seemed to slow down.
Indeed, just as he and his wife were leaving, a colleague of mine on Middle Eastern affairs sidled up to me and said in a voice piqued alternatively with amusement and despair, "Did you know that President Morsi just took over all powers in Egypt?" I did not.
But in fact he must have run a kind of political marathon from the signing of the ceasefire in a Western suit and tie to putting on his pharaoh's robes and crown in Cairo.
As the International Crisis Group, an excellent group of analysts working all over the world, wrote in its Alert: "President Mohamed Morsi's dramatic one-two punch -- producing a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas on 22 November; issuing a constitutional declaration granting himself full powers the next day -- was proof of remarkable political deftness.
"It also was evidence of the impasse in which Egypt's transition has been stuck as well as of the Muslim Brotherhood's worrying tendency to try to overcome it by ignoring rather than compromising with its detractors."
Nobody has been perfect, most analysts and commentators on the Morsi melodrama on the Nile have said or written. Since his surprise election as president, the opposition (some democratic, some not) had been constantly divided and now formed a National Salvation Front; the courts, from the previous regime, constantly blocked him; and, perhaps above all, Morsi had the old and increasingly numerous "Brothers" on his side in an age when Islamism was unquestionably the main entree on the menu of the troubled Middle East.
Cairo was alive again, but this time with the cries of largely secular young men and women whose wishes had been perverted. The stock market in Egypt fell precipitously. The Brotherhood's buildings caught fire, and there were few who did not realize that they were witnessing, not democracy, but a flagrant takeover of all political power. No one believed it would be short-lived, as President Morsi had claimed.
As Rabab al Mahdi, a prominent political scientist at the American University of Cairo, was quoted in the Financial Times: "This leads to dictatorship and it is fascist. We have now reached a turning point that will decide what political system we have for decades."
Those are dangerous words, indeed, for "decades" is a long, long time.
Meanwhile, Egypt is horribly overpopulated; its population, at last count 84 million, is jamming the increasingly unmovable streets of Cairo and even the Nile. Egypt needs a negotiating president who will encourage trade and bring people together -- apparently, it has got the opposite of this. Democracy is really only a system for fairly delegating power, but Egyptians are living antithetically in an age of ideology and faith.