Unlike many of the other Middle Eastern countries, Egypt is not oil-rich. It does have a ruling class that controls industry, farming, transportation, banking, utilities, and investment policy. These forces, representing a tiny percentage of the total population, are enormously wealthy (sound familiar?) They had a long and close association with former President Hosni Mubarak whose economic policies, combined with political repression, strongly benefitted it (" Egypt's unfinished revolution: Egypt since the fall of Mubarak ," Sameh Naguib, International Socialist Review, Issue #79, from Feb., 2011). The Egyptian ruling class has also had a long and close association with the Egyptian Army.
However, when the working-class/peasantry/urban poor/secular-intellectual growing dis-satisfaction with the results of Mubarak's so-called "neoliberal" policies of the last ten years or so finally boiled over in what came to be known as the "Arab Spring," in early 2011, the ruling class abandoned Mubarak very quickly. For what they saw if they did not do so was the real possibility of a real revolution in which the economic policies which had benefitted them so greatly would be overthrown. And they couldn't have that. So, using their tool, the Army, they turned to "democracy." However, that's a formalistic democracy, focused simply on the institution of popular elections, not democracy that is focused on implementing polices that will benefit the masses of the people, in a democratic way.
Well we know what happened when the elections took place. Egypt is certainly a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. However, represented by the "Muslim Brotherhood" it has a strong Islamic sector that would like to introduce "Islamism," based on a literal interpretation of the Koran, as the basis of government. (Sound familiar too? See U.S. politicians like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee who want to place "God above the Constitution," in essence nothing more than a Christian version of "Sharia Law" which the Republican Religious Right likes to rail against at every opportunity.)
As is well-known, the Muslim Brotherhood had been repressed by Mubarak (but never entirely put out of business). But then, in the context of "elections equal democracy" they had to be allowed to participate in those elections. And even though they are a minority, given that the secular forces were not well-organized (they actually chose a former Mubarak Prime Minister as their candidate for the Presidency [!]), the Islamists won the Presidency, in the person of Mohamed Morsi.
While apparently a pretty solid Islamist, Morsi was not very good at day-to-day governing, and further, the Egyptian ruling class remained as the Egyptian ruling class. So, when the anger and frustration of the masses of working people and the secular middle class/intellectuals boiled over again, the first objective of that ruling class was once again to stay in control of the economy, just as they have for all of these years. And sure enough the military acted once again on their behalf: Morsi out, interim government in, new Constitution (which would presumably limit the political power of the Islamists) to be drawn up), new elections to be called, but presumably with no options for democracy beyond having those elections. Interestingly enough, the ruling-class/military alliance has drawn major financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. They are hardly progressive, run highly repressive governments themselves, in the Saudis' case in particular are very repressive towards women, but are hardly Islamists. They obvious have a major stake, practical as well as political, in maintaining the Egyptian ruling class, as secular as it is, in power.
To do that, apparently the Islamists once again are going to face repression, especially since so many Egyptians are secular. (A marvellous representation of Egyptian secularism is presented a video of a 12-year old boy making the case for it ). It is impossible to predict at this time to where this split will lead, but it could lead to civil war, essentially over whether Egypt will be taken over by the theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood or will continue with secular governance. With the Egyptian ruling class on the side of the secularists and receiving strong support from major Arab powers, and with a strong secular tradition in Egypt, given the allegiance of the army to the ruling class the outcome should be predictable. But hey, you never know.
Lessons for the U.S.? Egypt is a great example of what can happen in a relatively advanced economy (at least compared with that of most of its Arab neighbours) when theocrats contest elections and start to take power. On their agenda is always the imposition, to some significant extent at least, of theocratic rule. Actually, in the U.S. the theocrats are in a much stronger position politically than they are in Egypt. In the U.S., they are coming to be more and more in control of both the social and economic policies of one of the two major parties. At least in Egypt there is major political opposition to them. In the U.S. few if any political figures will ever attack the Republican Party on the grounds that major elements of it want to impose their concept of "Biblical Law" by, for example, criminalizing abortion, on the population as whole. Would that we had even one Democratic politician who would talk about the Republicans the way the Egyptian boy in the video talks about the Muslim Brotherhood. Be afraid, folks. Be very afraid. We could well end up with the result of what I have called " The 15% Solution. "