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ďAuthoritarianism in the name of Islam is dead," one Egyptian activist messaged last Sunday, as millions gathered in the streets to denounce the rule of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government.
What happened over the next few days combined elements of a popular uprising and a military coup. The mass protest against Morsi showed the strength of dissent. But the Egyptian army's role in toppling Morsi Wednesday was a reminder that the danger of authoritarianism is still very much alive in the Middle East, whether it's under religious or nationalist guise.
The United States has so far been largely irrelevant to events in Egypt. I wish the Obama administration had been doing more to back moderates in the Middle East, overall, but in Egypt, the U.S. deliberately played the role of mediator rather than decider. The army wanted a public American "green light" for its coup, but it didn't get one.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the Egyptian people are writing their own history. They may be making mistakes along the way, and I wish we weren't seeing a general in uniform seizing the stage again. But for once, the Middle East conspiracy theorists who always see America as the controlling force in events seem to have been wrong. President Obama has been a back-seat passenger.
The target of this week's protests was Morsi, but the mass demonstrations recalled the giddy days of the February 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The basic message was the same: We are citizens. We want dignity and human rights. We aren't afraid of autocratic leaders or their thugs. That revolt led to military rule, too, but its spirit was one of idealism and democracy.
"It's a second revolution," Ahmed Said, a leader of Egypt's National Salvation Front, told the Guardian newspaper as this week's protests began. He was right. The danger is that, as in the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, we are in a prolonged period of violence and instability that will end only with a new dictator.
What's fascinating about the new popular challenge to religious parties in the Middle East is that it transcends sectarian lines. The protest against the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni Egypt is matched by a similar renewal of dissent in Shiite Iran, where the 2009 Green Revolution was crushed by government repression.
The unlikely emblem of change in Iran is Hassan Rouhani, who was elected president last month. He's part of the clerical establishment that has run Iran for the past three decades. So it's premature to assume that Rouhani's election signals any breakthrough in stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
But Rouhani's victory does tell us something about the Iranian public mood: Among the six candidates who ran in the June 14 election, Rouhani was the most critical of the status quo; he called for reforms and new ties with the West. The fact that he won 51 percent of the vote (with a 73 percent turnout) marked a break from the tutelage of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appeared to favor national security adviser Saeed Jalili.
Protesters have also shaken the Islamic populism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been an "authoritarian rock star," in the words William Dobson, the author of "The Dictator's Learning Curve." But even Erdogan triggered a backlash after years of squeezing the Turkish media, courts and military. "The shared experience of repression, combined with collective frustration at mounting top-down efforts to regulate public life ... brought citizens from different walks of life together" in Turkey, wrote Emiliano Alessandri, Nora Fisher Onar and Ozgur Unluhisarcikli on the Foreign Affairs website.
The political culture of the Middle East has been broken for so many decades that it won't be fixed easily or soon. With Morsi's election in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood had a chance to govern Egypt effectively. It flunked the test, failing to fix the economy, provide security or reach out to the opposition. It was said that the Muslim Brotherhood's political triumph was inevitable because it was the only powerful political force. Not anymore.
On America's Independence Day, we celebrate the triumph of our democracy. But David McCullough reminds us in his book "1776" that in January of that revolutionary year, George Washington despaired that "few people know the predicament we are in." It took America another 12 years to write and ratify a workable Constitution. In the Middle East, the convulsive democratic transition is just beginning.