In the wake of the latest instability everyone has an opinion on the future of Egypt. But the future of Egypt is the past, not the distant past of its pre-Arab culture, but a repetition of the last century. In a region that has never escaped from the past, history is not a road, it is a circle. Travel far enough along it and you come back to where you were.
Cairo has been shedding its colonial cosmopolitanism for half a century. The Muslim Brotherhood arsons sped up the process, and the Islamization of Egypt has been gaining ground for some time, but the cause and effect is a little more complicated than that.
Egypt wasn't really cosmopolitan, it was ruled by a Western power that was and the country's upper class mirrored their foreign rulers. That upper class still exists, the Tahrir Square protest organizers drew heavily on the country's own top 1 percent (not counting the Brotherhood) and the sons and daughters of the extremely well off, who tour Europe and America, and speak English well, make up a large percent of the activists, the bloggers and twitter users. And they're also irrelevant to the country as a whole.
As Egypt has drifted from the UK's orbit to the USSR and the US, fragments of the culture and politics have lodged, but have never gone very deep. The Brotherhood may have borrowed its organization from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian left may be drawing heavily on Europe for its inspiration, but these are means to an end, they are not what the conflict is actually about.
Conflicts over power are about power, the nature of power and who wields it. Will it be the oligarchic capitalists, their activist kids, the military or the Imams of Al-Azhar University? The answer is probably all of the above.
The military and the Brotherhood are part of the oligarchy and so is much of the left. The economic root of the protests were about money, or the price of goods in an economy controlled from the top down. And everyone is offering their own subsidized goods programs.
The election will come down to economic issues, rather than Sharia or the nature of the government, and the Islamic parties have done an excellent job of positioning themselves as less corrupt and more trustworthy. In Turkey, the AKP took the country deep into debt in order to finance an economic boom that gave them enough popularity to permanently crush military rule. If the Brotherhood takes power in Egypt then you can expect them to do the same thing.
American and European pressure to install El-Baradei in place of Mubarak means that the military is bound to feel closer to the Brotherhood than to the Egyptian left, which ended up looking like an American puppet. And the Islamists are always a convenient excuse for the dictators looking to crush the opposition with American support. Which also means that the military must keep the Islamists around.
The tyrants kept the Islamists around in order to maintain international support, only for the latter to rise up and overthrow them when the West suddenly turned around and backed the Islamists confusing everyone. But tyranny in the region is a military resource. Any good military has enough officers who will become dictators if given the chance. It's why the Gulf tribals have incompetent armies and rely on the US marines to keep them safe from ex-military dictators and socialist tyrants.
None of this will lead to a better Egypt. The military and the left consist of the same people and their children who have been running the country into the ground for over half a century. If the average Egyptian isn't too enthusiastic about them, he can hardly be blamed for it. He may not agree with the Brotherhood's entire program, but some aspects of it appeal to him. The moral parts of it seem like common sense.
Western culture exports the products of freedom, without the process of freedom. The Muslim world receives Madonna music videos, rather than the Constitution that makes possible. It receives gadgets rather than the innovation behind them. From that perspective, all he sees that the average Egyptian sees is license and materialism. And it's tempting to dismiss the West and embrace the Brotherhood, even if the actual source of that license and materialism is right here at home.
Democracy is no solution to a country where tolerance doesn't exist and there is no way to mediate conflicts between different groups. Women have no place in the new Egypt, because they're not men. Christians have no place because they're not Muslims. Or rather their place is at the feet of Muslims. This is the way it has always been and democracy doesn't change that, it only shines a light on the fact that this is the will of the people, not some aberrant impulse.
The Western approach to Egypt has always been unserious, bad history combining with spectacle, the romance of orientalism followed by the romance of protest. The coverage of the Egyptian protests focused more on striking photos of shouting men and women with flames in the background, than on who they were or what they wanted. Similarly the top story now is an Egyptian female blogger who posed naked to protest against Islamist domination of culture and the country's treatment of women. But it's the first half of that sentence which interests the media, not the second half. Just as it was the violence of the protests, not the identity or the protesters or their demands that interested the media. The common denominator is the search for spectacle over depth.
Protest tourism is very much a reality and the biggest offenders read Edward Said and talk about "Otherising" even as they keep treating other nations and cultures as political spectator sports. And when they sympathize enough with one team, then they try to help it win, without actually knowing who the teams are or what they are fighting about. This is how a generation of university students wound up wearing Keffiyahs, denouncing "Israeli occupation" and promoting a grass roots version of the Arab League boycott.
But there is nothing to hope for here and no teams to cheer for. Just bankrupt ideologies rooted in the past while using the technologies and terminology of the present fighting over the spoils of a dysfunctional post-colonial state that has never had a stable government that wasn't backed by force.
Whoever takes power and in whatever combination of shifting alliances, most of the country will still be poor and illiterate. Sexual harassment will still be commonplace and the presence of women in the public sphere will continue to diminish. Christians will continue being shoved aside and the West will be blamed for everything. There will be more men with beards and women with veils and few people will have rights and most things will run on connections.
Some on the left dream of the Egypt that might have been if Israel had never existed and there had been nothing to get in the way of Nasser's Arab Socialist program. But Nasser was not some great leader who was sidetracked by that pesky Jewish state sitting in the middle of his Arabist empire, he was a buffoon who needed an external enemy because he lacked any real ability to move his country forward. That made him no different from Saddam, Assad, Khaddafi and every tinpot dictator cluttering up the region.
The military is rotten, a relic of British colonialism kept in place by the need to fight the ethnic and religious minority across the border, and turned into a ruling class with tentacles in the country's economy. Hated by the pre-military elite families, many of whose children and grandchildren played a major role in Tahrir Square, it has no justification for ruling the country except the instability. Without the ideology of a Pan-Arabist power or anything besides its past record of fighting Israel, its only basis for rule is wholly serving.
That only leaves the Brotherhood, which has been working toward this for a long time, purging the country of its outside influences and crawling to the top. Now the political path has opened up, but elections means very little. In Egypt they mainly mean a chance to fail. But running Egypt has very little resemblance to anything that looks like functioning government. After all the shouting and arguments, the winner will be the one with the biggest mobs and the most bread and circuses.
That is the real future of Egypt.