WASHINGTON -- Since the beginning of the summer, riots and demonstrations have assaulted the streets of Egypt with such ferocity that you could scarcely make even the wildest sense of them. One could speak only of chaos and nihilism.
Analysts in Cairo estimated that 13 million Egyptians, out of a population of 84 million, have risen to protest the presidency of Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, with 22 million having signed a petition calling for his ouster. Millions more demonstrated, in different city squares, in favor of the Brotherhood and its clumsy attempts to turn highly secular Egypt into an Islamist state, with Sharia law and an international caliphate.
At the same time that Cairo seemed to be exploding anew, Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" began two years ago, began to go through the second phase of the historic movement along with Egypt.
Both countries had seen Islamist presidents and parliaments elected after experiencing violence against secular, but nonelected, strongmen. And now, more-or-less two years later, both of these Islamist administrations have totally failed.
So, perhaps we have situations that are not totally chaotic and nihilistic, but which have a system and structure, if we can only find them. This would not only make the future of the Middle East look immensely more hopeful, but it would give us parallel experiences to study and sieve for direction.
Take the new situation in Egypt, the major power in the Middle East, as described in a journal by Dr. M. Cherif Bassiouni, the brilliant Egyptian-American professor of law emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago, and entitled "Egypt's Latest Revolution."
"After a year of what could well be described as a government in disarray, it was obvious to the Egyptian people that Morsi was not a competent president, but a figurehead, and that most decisions were made by the Office of Guidance of the Muslim Brotherhood," Dr. Bassiouni wrote. "Regrettably, however, whoever was calling the shots at the Office of Guidance, including the Guide himself, were ill-prepared to administer a country. The Brotherhood leadership were men who had struggled for years to simply live another day, given the brutal repression of the Mubarak regime and his predecessors....
"Without doubt, the Brotherhood has always had the goal of seizing power and turning Egypt into a theocracy, an Islamic-run state. Their affiliates in other Arab countries also have the same goal." But, he went on, living underground, they excelled at being trustworthy, whereas what is primarily needed in government is competence, something they did not have.
Essentially, says Dr. Bassiouni, who is perhaps the most knowledgeable analyst of Egypt living today, new riots began on June 30 because the Morsi government had no economic policy -- none at all!
"Public safety continued to deteriorate, as street gangs and thefts became more blatant," he continued, "and the country's economic productivity spiraled downwards. Tourism ... plummeted to an estimated 25 percent to 35 percent of what it was before 2011. ... Egypt's economic credit all but disappeared."
New types of poverty were inventively created by the Egyptian government between 2011 and 2013. New slums were built as shanty-towns around the old shanty-towns. There was often no gasoline, no bread and no electricity. Gangs stopped trains and barricaded roads, while President Morsi put the governorship of Luxor, the most famous Egyptian ruins of them all, under the "Brother" who had overseen the killing of handfuls of Germans years ago in the Valley of the Kings.
Finally, Dr. Bassiouni summed up the real problem with the Morsi government: "In the end, the Egyptian people got fed up with this situation and saw the prospects of an Islamist form of government auguring more of what they were already going through."
Moreover, since President Morsi had transformed Egypt's constitution to give himself total power, there was now no way to impeach him. The only way to change the situation was through the power of the streets.
Since nearly the same concatenation of events is proceeding in Tunisia at the same time, we can begin to compare what we are seeing across the region. Elections are held and the long-repressed Islamist movements win the presidency in both countries. Parliaments also go to the Islamists. But the Islamists cannot govern and the people grow more and more frustrated. Riots break out in both countries against the Islamists and the secularists strongly assert their power again.
What will come exactly remains uncertain. But at least there is now a pattern in two major Arab countries of what went wrong. At least now we have something to build on.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)