Why the lack of outcry? What many of us on the outside underestimated was not the popularity of the Brotherhood -- that was obvious to anyone who even superficially knew Egypt -- but the depth of the suspicion and hostility it engendered. When I was in Cairo writing about the Brotherhood in the far-off days of 2007, virtually all of the secular academics and human rights activists I met viewed the Brothers less as a religious body than as an organized conspiracy, patiently gestating a plot to seize the nation's commanding heights. A senior Mubarak official compared them to the Nazi Party. This loathing was, in fact, the one thing the state and its critics could agree on. They all thought I was a dupe for believing that the Brothers might take a constructive part in Egypt.
The role of the Brotherhood is a -- perhaps the -- distinctive feature of the Arab Spring, or at least of the North African sub-species. The democratic transitions in South America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, had two sides, even if the "opposition" was wildly heterogeneous. In Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya, it has three: the old regime, the liberals, and the Brotherhood. The point is not simply that religious identity is more salient in the Arab world than elsewhere. The Brotherhood, after all, is less hostile to secularism than are the Salafists, who have carefully positioned themselves outside the current conflict. (In Tunisia, the Salafists are the common enemy of Ennahda and its critics.) Secular forces in Egypt fear the Islamizing zeal of the Brotherhood, but they also fear the Brotherhood as a secret organization with a history of violence, if an ancient one; an opaque leadership culture, and murky ties to the state.
Morsy's single greatest mistake, in retrospect, was failing to put those fears to rest by ruling with the forces he had politically defeated. He was a bad president, and an increasingly unpopular one. But nations with no historical experience of democracy do not usually get an effective or liberal-minded ruler the first time around. Elections give citizens a chance to try again. With a little bit of patience, the opposition could have defeated Morsy peacefully. Instead, by colluding in the banishment of the Brotherhood from political life, they are about to replace one tyranny of the majority with another. And since many Islamists, now profoundly embittered, will not accept that new rule, the new tyranny of the majority will have to be more brutally enforced than the old one.
Perhaps this new Egypt can become a kind of modernizing autocracy, as Mubarak's circle sought to do in the years before 2011. As I wrote in my last column, Egypt now has a highly competent economic team which could open up the economy, reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and put Egypt on a path to growth. But none of that is likely to happen so long as half the country feels disenfranchised by the other half. The half that was in is now the half that is out, but Egypt is as divided today as it was before June 30. And that's unlikely to change, since Egypt's liberals seem more consumed by hatred of the Brotherhood than the Brothers were by the liberals.
Perhaps we in the West were confused by the word "liberal," which we associate with a tolerant and dispassionate attitude towards difference. That kind of attitude presupposes a sense of confidence about the world, and about the political marketplace, which Arab publics have very little reason to feel. When the stakes feel truly dire, as they do in Egypt, liberalism itself can become a form of zealotry. This is the dark place in which Egypt now finds itself.