President Mohamed Morsi
Running an impoverished, dictator-ravaged country of over 70 million is hard. (Photo credit: European External Action Service – EEAS)

Back they go!  A bit of yelling, quite a lot of screaming, and a few gunshots here and there, and the people of Egypt are on the streets calling for another regime to fall.  It would be easy to say Egypt is on the cusp of falling to a yet another theocratic dictatorship akin to Iran.  There are, after all, a number of similarities.  In both cases, a U.S.-backed dictator fell after a popular revolution driven by many different elements of society.  In both cases, the most organized parties after the revolution best poised to seize power were the religious ones.  But Egypt is not Iran, nor will it become a Sunni version of it.  Here’s why.

Iranian Shi’a Islam allows for a theocracy; Egyptian Sunni Islam does not

All those adjectives are there for a reason.  Religious tradition in Iran has a political element; the Ayatollah Ass-o-hola makes sense since Iranian Shi’ism demands a political leader to be a direct representative of God and to be trained in the religious language thereof.  Iranian Shi’ism is a lot like medieval Italian Catholicism in that way; back in those days, the pope could be leader of both church and state.

But Egyptian Sunnism doesn’t have an equivalent.  While leaders who are good Muslims should rule, they don’t have to be religiously trained to be a leader.  The position of caliph, or leader of the faithful, was abolished when the Ottoman Empire died in the 1920s.  Since then, Sunni Islam worldwide has remained politically leaderless.  Much as they might like it, there’s no supreme political position in Sunni Islam waiting to be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Iran had Saddam; Egypt’s quite alone

Almost as soon as the revolution in Iran took off, Saddam’s legions invaded.  It was during the Iran-Iraq war that Iran’s revolution was most hardcore and extreme.  The Ayatollah and his minions were able to purge army, government, and society of all their enemies and attract little attention since Saddam was butchering people on the border.  Moreover, the invasion rallied the people to the new government, forged a sense of solidarity with it, and instilled a hyper nationalism that was a useful tool for Tehran.  After the war, Iran was forced to move back towards moderation, culminating in the election a few weeks ago where a relative moderate won the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood will want to blame outsiders for all their troubles, but nobody will believe them.  Israel’s not going to come thundering over the border and Libya’s a basket case.  And Sudan to the south?  Fucking hell, they just lost half their country.  Foreign conspiracies are the bread and butter of Middle Eastern politicians, but Egypt’s got few.  Egyptians can focus exclusively on why the Brotherhood’s not up to snuff as opposed to worrying about enemy armies swarming over their borders.

the Egyptian army build concrete walls at Mors...
The Egyptian army builds concrete walls at Morsi’s presidential Palace. To keep him in or the protestors out?  (Photo credit: MoudBarthez)

And Egypt’s army still holds the trump cards

Egypt’s army is still the most powerful force in the country.  While Morsi did manage to push out a few top dogs and replace them, the army has made it clear in the past 24 hours that they will remain a force to be reckoned with.  Without an emergency like a war, Morsi just can’t purge the army and fill it with his supporters.  So the army will remain kingmaker.

So Egypt will be Egypt

And theocracy is a highly unlikely turn out.

But chaos is not

A full civil war isn’t likely because the army is still unified.  But civil unrest, shootings, lootings, and bombings are probable.  Egypt may soon go through a decade of riots and anarchy as Egyptians try to find their footing in the modern world.  But in a dense, urbanized, and relatively sophisticated place like Egypt, the state’s not likely to go to pieces.  It’s just not going to have an easy time of it as Egyptians learn what democracy really means.

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