Now Egypt has to try again to begin a democracy. The country is fiercely divided into tribes, Islamists, moderates, secularists and others. The Brotherhood remains a well-organized group and it is unclear whether it can grasp or accept the concepts of cooperation and flexibility that undergird democracy.
In Syria, the situation is even worse. Two years of civil war have failed to remove President Assad or even produce consensus among his opposition. What started as an Arab Spring, pro-democracy movement — with Assad looking like a dictator whose time was up — has degenerated into a sectarian, Sunni versus Shiite religious war.
Although there are still insurgents fighting to overthrow a tyranny (Assad), increasingly it looks like the winners would install a tyranny of their own. It is troubling that Iran, and Hezbollah, from Lebanon, are now supporting Syria’s most fundamentalist Shiite groups, while the anti-Assad rebels — mostly Sunni — match the government and Hezbollah viciousness with extremist groups of their own, such as Jabhat al Nusra. Both sides contain true believers whose delusions of religious righteousness permit them to justify murdering small children and women.
And most dispiriting of all, the argument that separates Sunnis and Shiites — the disagreement that justifies killing the children of the other side — boils down to a disagreement over which side has the more legitimate Islamic prophets. Each sect — which chillingly contains literally tens of thousands of fervid, lunatic worshipers — is convinced that only its vision of a new Islamic caliphate is the acceptable one.
The most discouraging thing sweeping through Egypt and Syria — and dozens of other Muslim countries in Africa and central Asia — is the force of fundamentalist Islam and the willingness of its followers to use violence to promote it. It is discouraging for two reasons. First, it pits Islam against itself and divides populations who live with each other and who should be brothers. Second, it is increasingly appearing that many versions of “strict” Islam are unable to coexist with democracy.