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Column: Egypt’s Democrats Abandon Democracy

In the spring of 2008, a 27-year-old Egyptian woman named Esraa Abdel Fattah created a Facebook page to support a strike against the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak. The strike didn’t have much impact, but the Facebook page attracted tens of thousands of followers, and Abdel Fattah was soon arrested. Virtually overnight she became a symbol for a burgeoning movement of young Egyptians demanding democratic change.

Three years later, that movement touched off a revolution that ousted Mubarak and appeared to open the door to the liberal democracy those activists had dreamed of. Abdel Fattah was showered with awards from Western groups; a nongovernmental organization she headed, the Egyptian Democratic Academy, received funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I saw her in Cairo in late 2011, she was eagerly preparing a monitoring operation for Egypt’s first parliamentary elections.

Yet this month Abdel Fattah is one of the legions of former Egyptian democrats cheering on the military coup against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi. According to an account in the New York Times, she justified the military intervention with a burst of xenophobic hyperbole: “When terrorism is trying to take hold of Egypt and foreign interference is trying to dig into our domestic affairs, then it’s inevitable for the great Egyptian people to support its armed forces against the foreign danger.”

What happened to Egypt’s young liberals? Five years ago, they were the most promising movement in an Arab world dominated by strongmen like Mubarak. Now the vast majority of them are cheering another general, coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, whose beribboned image is appearing on posters around Cairo in tandem with those of former military dictators Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

This dizzying turnaround is unprecedented in the history of popular pro-democracy movements. Poland’s Solidarity or the anti-Pinochet movement in Chile would never have dreamed of embracing their former oppressors.

In defense of Egypt’s erstwhile democrats, it could be argued that they, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, had to fight on two fronts: not just against a military-backed autocracy but also against an ideological movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that under Morsi appeared bent on monopolizing power. .

Though they ignited the 2011 revolution, the liberals were always weaker than either the army or the Brotherhood — less rich, less organized, less disciplined. And as five free elections in two years demonstrated, they had scant following among the mass of poor and rural Egyptians outside Cairo.

Once proud of their networked, leaderless structure, the liberals eventually embraced former U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei as their figurehead. It was a disastrous choice: Arrogant, vain and more comfortable in a Viennese salon than a Cairo slum, ElBaradei was polling in the single digits when he withdrew from last year’s presidential race.

Without their own candidate, the liberals were faced with a choice in the runoff between a military-backed candidate and the Islamist Morsi. Most chose Morsi. A delegation of youth leaders met with the Brotherhood nominee and extracted promises: Secular ministers would be included in the Cabinet, and the new constitution would be forged by a consensus among secular and Islamist parties. Morsi fulfilled some of his pledges, but his government grew steadily more insular and intolerant as it battled the lingering, Mubarak-era establishment in the bureaucracy, police and judiciary.

The liberals could have waited and organized for parliamentary elections, due in a few months; polls showed the Muslim Brotherhood sinking fast. Instead, they took the easy way out and switched sides. As the Wall Street Journal reported, in the months before the coup, secular opposition leaders met regularly with Egypt’s top generals, who promised that they would respond to large street demonstrations by ousting Morsi.

Once again, the liberals are saying they have extracted promises from their new partners: The constitution will be swiftly amended, and free and fair elections will follow. Drunk with the success of their “second revolution,” they have convinced themselves that the military will retreat from politics and that Egypt’s Islamists will never win another election.

Meanwhile, as vice president, ElBaradei sits in a government that is holding hundreds of political prisoners incommunicado; that has shut down al-Jazeera and other Islamist media; and that has gunned down scores of unarmed street protesters. It’s an outcome that Esraa Abdel Fattah and her idealistic young friends never would have wished for five years ago.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.