Middle East

Egypt's failed democratic experiment

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Media captionTwo Egypts now exist side by side, as Jeremy Bowen reports

Mohammed Ramadan was angry. He was polite and welcoming but fury bubbled out of him.

"The army, and General Sisi [its leader], have betrayed Egypt, they've betrayed our revolution. They're supposed to protect us, the Egyptian people. But they're strangling us."

Mohammed stood next to a low wall built of uprooted concrete kerbstones. It was an improvised redoubt marking the edge of the streets that supporters of the deposed President Mohammed Morsi have occupied around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr City in Cairo.

Behind him stood three lines of men, almost all of them bearded.

On their heads were building workers' helmets. In their hands were a variety of sticks and pipes. One man had a club, the business end of which he had studded neatly, almost lovingly, with sharp screws.

"They have guns and planes, we only have these," another man shouted, when he saw me staring at the weapons in their hands.

The army has appealed for calm, and says it wants to protect every Egyptian.

This country's citizens tend to respect, even venerate, the armed forces. But its intervention in politics, and its removal of President Morsi, has alienated a big section of the community.

Two Egypts exist side-by-side.

One is made of men and women, supporters of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are as angry as Mohammed Ramadan. They are furious that what they see as the democratic will of the people has been flouted, and they are in no mood to accept meekly what has been done to them.

The other Egypt is still flocking to Tahrir Square and the area around the presidential palace for celebration rallies. For a few days this week the military has been entertaining them with a succession of air shows in the sky over Cairo.

Helicopters fly in line astern over Tahrir Square trailing flags. Higher up fast jets let go vapour trials of black, white and red, the colours of the Egyptian national flag.

'Jihadist whirlwind'

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Media captionMohamed ElBaradei: "We were between a rock and a hard place"

The planes are also a reminder of who is in charge now. Leaders of the secular opposition, who lost out badly at the last presidential election to political Islamists, will not use the words "coup" or "intervention" to describe what has happened in Egypt, even though what has happened matches most definitions of the word.

They say instead that the armed forces are acting at the request of the people.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader who was a vocal critic of the military in the period it ran Egypt after it told President Hosni Mubarak his time was up, said the country had been stuck "between a rock and a hard place".

President Morsi, he told me, had been trying to make himself into a pharaoh, and in the process he had stripped himself of his legitimate right to rule.

The alternative to the military's move was civil war. It could even, he said, have been as bad as Somalia.

Mr ElBaradei explained that Egyptian democracy was "nascent". The standards of European or American democracy, he said, could not be applied here. The actions of the army, he said, would put the revolution back on the right track.

The best scenario for Egypt is that the army will enforce a period of calm. Mr ElBaradei said that politics would resume, and elections would follow. The worst scenario is that the violence the army says it wants to prevent will come back as a jihadist whirlwind.

For all the talk of rebooting Egypt's political system, the fact is that its experiment with democracy has failed dismally.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, together the biggest political and social movement in the country, have been rounded up and locked away in a way that happened often in the years before 2011.

The army's intervention does not of itself do anything to tackle Egypt's huge economic problems. The country is deeply divided.

It is not a good beginning for a new era.