The Arab Spring is rapidly turning into a winter of chaos and oppression.
As protests grip the Egyptian capital of Cairo, and Islamic fundamentalists gain in confidence there and elsewhere across the region, the hopes of Western leaders for a new era of democracy across the Middle East have been exposed as hopelessly naïve.
For far from paving the way for freedom and pluralism, the uprisings have led only to more intolerance, authoritarianism and division.
The sense of darkening crisis in Egypt this week is a disturbing example of this trend.
n February, the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square were hailed by many gullible commentators and politicians as an inspirational outbreak of people power — the Arab equivalent of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.
But in the period that has followed the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, the prospects for Egypt have become grim.
The economy is worsening. Unemployment is rising, and living standards are plummeting.
Initially, in the wake of the revolution, the Army pledged to give up political control within six months.
Now, sparking the current Cairo protests, the Egyptian Army — which co-operated in the overthrow of Mubarak’s despotism — has cynically strengthened its stranglehold on power and demanded that the proposed new parliament will have no oversight on the military’s affairs.
It seems military leaders will effectively remain in power until at least 2013, when presidential elections are scheduled to be held. Perhaps even longer.
But even though there is widespread disillusion at the military, the fury of the Egyptian public should not be exaggerated. Political culture in the Arab world is notoriously apathetic, one reason why despots or religious extremists are often able to exert such influence.
For all the excitable TV coverage of the current riots, there are probably only seven or eight thousand demonstrators in Tahrir Square — and the renewed protest movement is essentially divided into two camps.
One is made up of progressives who want to see the introduction of the kind of democratic freedoms that we take for granted in the West, such as political pluralism and a free press.
The other, much more sinister force is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a completely different agenda and seeks the creation of an extremist Islamist state.
At the moment, the progressives make up the vast bulk of the rioters, motivated by genuine anger at the entrenchment of military rule since the fall of Mubarak.
For it is no exaggeration to say that the rulers are more autocratic than the disgraced President ever was.
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