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Egypt’s year of lesser evils comes full circle

Supporters of the ousted Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi march in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, March 28.

Amru Taha/AP

It is somewhat fitting that, on the anniversary of the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Tahrir Square was closed.

Authorities blocked access to the heart of Egypt's Arab Spring revolution last week, following a series of bomb blasts near the country's presidential palace. Where once there were hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians calling for an end to a multidecade authoritarian regime, there is now a cordon of armoured military vehicles.

This is Egypt's year of lesser evils, come full circle.

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Exactly one year ago, Mohammed Morsi was unceremoniously dumped from office by the country's armed forces – an event that fits the textbook definition of a military coup, but one that found its prompting spark and its subsequent justification in the voices of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets demanding Mr. Morsi leave.

(The Arabic word for leave is irhal. For 3 1/2 years, Egyptians have been chanting "Irhal" in the streets – first at former dictator Hosni Mubarak, then at Mr. Morsi and perhaps one day at Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former field marshal who ousted and replaced Mr. Morsi. It is, in many ways, the defining word of the country's languid revolution: short, to the point and rooted decidedly in the negative, a chant expressing what Egyptians don't want, not what they do.)

Your opinion on what happened in the subsequent 12 months largely depends on what you consider to be the lesser evil – an ineffectual, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned president who failed to make a dent in any of the country's endemic structural problems, or the creeping return of Egypt's authoritarian tradition, marked by a vicious clampdown on dissent and the largest mass slaughter in the country's modern history.

Although, as he languishes in detention, he has become a kind of pre-emptive martyr for Brotherhood members, Mr. Morsi was never all that good at his job. An engineer by training, he had no presidential polish and a habit of using the same old paternalistic, religiously tinted hyperbole in his droning speeches – "I want to protect the children: our sons who will grow after us. I want to protect the daughters, who will become the mothers of the future and teach their children that their fathers and grandfathers were men!"

Some of the accomplishments of which Mr. Morsi boasted were decidedly fictional. He claimed, for example, partial victory in Egypt's war on traffic, saying he had solved 60 per cent of the problem in his first 100 days in office. Having been in Egypt at the time, spending hours in a molasses of unmoving vehicles just to get across downtown, I can attest that Mr. Morsi's numbers were almost certainly at odds with reality.

Some accomplishments, however, were real. It is now largely forgotten or ignored that Mr. Morsi played a pivotal role in ending Israel's November, 2012, shelling campaign in Gaza – a role for which he received commendation from a chorus of world leaders.

But more significantly than any of his successes or failures, the President lost track of his razor-thin mandate. In the 2012 presidential election, he won in a runoff by a count of only 51.7 per cent. The man who claimed the other 48.3 per cent, Ahmed Shafik, was simply unpalatable to many revolutionaries because of his long-standing and senior role in the previous authoritarian regime. It is certain that many Egyptians cast a ballot for Mr. Morsi with one hand and held their noses with the other.

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In fact, Mr. Morsi wasn't even the Brotherhood's first choice. He was only selected after the group's deputy supreme guide, Khairat al-Shater was declared ineligible to run because of a previous prison sentence.

As such, when Mr. Morsi attempted to grant himself unchecked executive powers in late 2012, the backlash was fierce.

The President tried to frame his power grab as a stabilizing measure, a means of keeping the country running until it had a functional constitution. Few bought that explanation, and millions of Egyptians took to the streets in protest.

In the following months the size of those protests would swell, until finally the military seized the opportunity and removed Mr. Morsi from office. In a subsequent crackdown on counter-demonstrators who called the whole thing a coup, security forces killed hundreds of Mr. Morsi's supporters in their street-side camps. The slaughter marked perhaps the darkest chapter of Egypt's Arab Spring.

Today, after a year that has left thousands of Egyptians dead or imprisoned and the rest enraged or exhausted, there is little for anyone but the most hardened partisans to celebrate. The country's moribund economy – a root cause of the Arab Spring protests – shows no signs of life; countless Egyptians (and more than a few journalists) languish in prison for the crime of saying the wrong thing; terrorist bombings, once a rarity in Egypt, are beginning to take place with alarming frequency.

Undoubtedly, there are still many Egyptians who will weigh all these misfortunes against the removal of a Brotherhood-aligned president and call the outcome a net gain. But in many ways, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, the political and societal equivalent of the irhal chant that demands removal but gives little thought to the shape and severity of what comes next.

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