Atlantic Council
July 13, 2013
Egypt Alexandria.jpg

Western analysts have spent the past week trying to make sense of developments in Egypt, with most expressing concern over what they assert to be a military coup deposing a democratically elected president. Engaging in a debate over whether former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster was a coup or a revolution detracts from the main issue: Egyptians have learned to question their fate and have committed to taking responsibility for shaping Egypt’s path forward.

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets because they believed the January 25 revolution was hijacked by an authoritarian regime that, in many ways, maintained repressive Mubarak-era practices with no hope of improvement in sight.

It is an oversimplification to dismiss developments in Egypt as little more than a group of sore losers (the opposition) working with the military to remove a democratically elected president only one year after his inauguration. This is not the case. Morsi’s slim electoral victory would not have been possible without the help of revolutionary factions who helped him gain more than 13 million votes in the run-off election so as to keep Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq out of office. Morsi won 5 million votes in the first round when supported only by his faithful base. These factions and others had a vested interest in seeing Morsi succeed as Egypt’s first civilian elected president.

Increasing discontent with Morsi’s performance led to a campaign, Tamarod (Rebellion), which called for early presidential elections and nationwide demonstrations on Morsi’s inaugural anniversary - June 30. In a matter of weeks, more than 22 million Egyptians signed Tamarod’s petition and on June 30, millions took to the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation. This was a leaderless, grassroots movement in every sense of the word. Egypt’s opposition politicos would never have been able to mobilize these numbers to sign a petition, let alone demonstrate in the vast majority of governorates around Egypt. If anything, Tamarod exposed the opposition elite’s inability to galvanize a strong support base the way a few unknown youngsters were able to in just a few weeks.

What Did Morsi Do That Was So Bad?

Those who took part in the June 30 protests believed that Morsi had lost his legitimacy as the rightful leader of a democratic state. Most protesters were not contesting his electoral victory. They deemed it irrelevant given Morsi’s anti-democratic record since taking office.

At the outset of his presidency, Morsi repeatedly declared the importance of reaching out to the opposition and an inclusive decision-making process. In practice, however, Morsi alienated the opposition, and his regime seemed determined to protect the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood above all else. He never followed through with promises to reform the Constituent Assembly’s composition making it more representative of Egyptian society. Efforts to reach consensus through national dialogue were undermined by unilateral decisions that disregarded the outcome of any dialogue. These exclusionary practices persisted in various forms throughout Morsi’s rule. 

Five months after his election to office, Morsi issued a constitutional decree granting himself extraordinary powers and immunity from any form of judicial oversight. The decree undermined the rule of law and the constitutional principles of separation of powers, and impeded the courts. His regime’s legislative record was no better. Proposed laws on regulating civil society and the right to demonstrate peacefully were troubling examples of an intent to reinstate an authoritarian state and repress civil and political rights, and the free media.

All transgressions took place against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions in Egypt. The crumbling economy and dwindling foreign currency reserves affected people’s lives, and in the weeks leading to June 30, power and water outages were a daily occurrence for many, while gasoline and diesel shortages exacerbated the crisis. Despite pledges by Morsi to improve security during his first 100 days in office, the security situation worsened over the course of the year and no serious efforts were taken to reform the dysfunctional and corrupt security sector.

To be fair, any new leader would have faced a number of these problems, some of which were exacerbated by the polarized opposition and the unwillingness of some state institutions, such as national police forces, to cooperate fully with Morsi’s government. The immediate return of a police presence to Cairo’s streets this week suggests a calculated effort to undermine the Morsi regime may have been underway.

However, Morsi’s exclusionary policies ensured that only the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies would play any genuine role in governance. Morsi not only alienated all political factions outside the Islamist camp, but also missed the opportunity to vest the Egyptian population with a sense of ownership over the country’s problems and solutions. Therefore, only Morsi and the Brotherhood were left to blame for the various crises that have plagued Egypt in the last year.

Why Involve the Military?

Few people would argue that the army is a democratic actor – it’s unrealistic to expect such an institution to protect human rights or encourage the development of a genuinely democratic state. The immediate shutdown of Islamist television channels without any legal due process demonstrates the extent to which the army is willing to go to silence opposition to its intervention, even if under the pretext of preventing incitement of violence on the airwaves. Involving the military in politics presents serious risks and creates a dangerous precedent. It also reflects the uncomfortable alliance between pro-democracy forces and those seeking a strongman rule in Egypt. Nevertheless, it is a risk Egyptians were willing to take in the absence of other options. 

The recently adopted Egyptian Constitution provides three potential mechanisms to remove a president prior to completing his term: (i) the president calls for a public referendum on whether to hold early elections as a matter of superior national interest (Art. 150); (ii) the president resigns (Art. 151); or (iii) the House of Representatives (the lower chamber of parliament) impeaches the president for a felony or grand treason by a two-thirds majority (Art. 152). Given that the House of Representatives was dissolved in 2012, the millions who took to the streets on June 30 hoped Morsi would resign or at least call for a referendum, in response to such widespread opposition from the public. Instead, Morsi stood his ground, insisting on completing his term, reminding citizens of his legitimacy derived from the ballot box. In his final televised speech on July 2, which lasted just under an hour, he used the word “legitimacy” fifty-seven times. As such, people turned to the military, as the last remaining functional institution with any power, to force Morsi out of office and launch a new transition schedule towards civilian rule.

In the weeks leading to June 30, the military sent many signals indicating that it would not interfere in politics. Many believed the military would not make a move against the Morsi regime under any circumstances; after all, the military had secured all of its interests under the Morsi regime. Under the new constitution, the military budget and its operations remained protected from public oversight. The military also retained its right to try civilians in military courts for any crimes that “harm the armed forces.” Furthermore, the Islamist-dominated legislature spared no effort in passing any legislation the army requested (in some instances with incredible speed and without any public discussion). Finally, there were no indications that military leaders would face prosecutions for crimes committed during SCAF’s rule.

Human rights activists, Ultras members, and other revolutionary groups that are all too familiar with the military’s abuses inflicted during the post-Mubarak transition were among those supporting the Tamarod campaign. They vowed to continue the fight against military rule post-Morsi; some of those chanting against Morsi in Tahrir and at the presidential palace were also chanting against SCAF. Therefore, it was unclear why the army would risk the gains it secured in exchange for the uncertainty of what would come if Morsi’s regime fell. Nevertheless, the military was compelled to intervene given the widespread demands for the army to step in. Among the most common chants heard on the streets and seen in posters throughout Cairo were ones asking the head of the Armed Forces General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to step in. Mass cheering for army choppers circling above protesters left little room for interpreting what the people wanted. Had the army chosen to remain on the sidelines, it would have risked its own legitimacy in the Egyptian street and potentially threatened its own survival in the long term if people perceived the army as abandoning the public in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the rising calls for civil disobedience, the increasing number of resignations and official statements disavowing Morsi as president, it was difficult to imagine how Morsi would have been able to govern should he have remained in office.

This is not to suggest that the army would benefit nothing from its intervention – certainly, the intervention could grant the army a popular mandate to take a leading role in the political process, an opportunity to rehabilitate its image, and a channel through which it could exercise control over the failing security situation in various parts of Egypt, including in Sinai. Yet, without the mass public support for military intervention, the army likely could not or would not have acted on its own initiative.

What’s Next?

It is essential for all democratic forces in Egypt to maintain the pressure for a swift transition to civilian government. It is promising that the army decided to hand the presidency to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, rather than the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. There is no doubt that the army is controlling the transition from behind the scenes but there are signs that serious efforts are underway to form a civilian government to oversee the transition. In addition, the interim president issued a declaration this week that sets forth the transition schedule for amending the constitution and electing a new president and parliament.

Meaningful steps must be taken to ensure that the transition process is inclusive of all Egyptian political factions, including the Islamists, to avoid an endless cycle of retribution, chaos, and violence. Nour’s (the ultraconservative Salafi party) critical role in the selection of the new cabinet, thus far, indicates that efforts to include the Islamist voice in the process are being taken seriously. It is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to reject the entire process and mobilize its base against any new government. However, if a successful transition is underway that starts to bear positive results, the Brotherhood may not find wide support from the Egyptian street.

The Muslim Brotherhood supporters have thus far indicated their willingness to escalate the stand-off into a violent confrontation with the public as Brotherhood leaders actively incite their ranks to sacrifice their lives in order to reinstate Morsi, painting the divide as a battle between those who fear God and those who do not. As a result, attacks on police stations, army checkpoints, and anti-Morsi civilians have been taking place in the last week throughout the country, including disturbing reports of attacks on churches and Christian homes, and even throwing young demonstrators off a roof-top.

Some pro-Morsi demonstrators have also been under attack in various locations around the country. In addition, when Muslim Brotherhood supporters attempted to storm the Presidential Guard Club where Morsi is reportedly being held, a bloody battle with the guards ensued, leading to the death of more than 50 protestors. Although there are conflicting reports about the details surrounding that event, eyewitness accounts indicate that the guards used excessive force in responding to these attacks and may have also retaliated by attacking other peaceful protesters in the area. An independent investigation into the details of that event must begin immediately and those responsible should be brought to justice – the killing of innocent civilians should never be justified.

Dealing with such atrocities will require a nuanced approach that goes beyond a security-centered solution. Reaching out to Islamists is necessary to get all the stakeholders back to the democratic process and pull the country away from the brink of civil war.

The Moral of the Story

Assessing the situation in Egypt through the narrow lens of whether deposing Morsi constitutes a coup or not is largely beside the point to the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets last week. Most Egyptians vowed never to return to a pre-January 25 authoritarian state, and they saw Morsi’s rule as nothing more than an extension of that state. Left with no options in the face of a defiant regime, the people took a stand to impeach Morsi and protect their revolution from being hijacked under the guise of an electoral process. These Egyptians are not inviting another era of military rule similar to the one Egypt endured following Mubarak’s ouster. Rather, they want a swift transition to a civilian government that would facilitate the establishment of a true constitutional democracy that enshrines human rights, protects the rights of minorities and the most vulnerable, and values the interests of its citizens, not simply those in power.

Many are skeptical of the military’s intentions and their willingness to relinquish power. While I share their concerns, I have faith in the Egyptian people’s ability to protect their democracy. The same people that mobilized the streets twice in less than three years will be the watchdogs monitoring any attempts by the army to hold power a day longer than necessary. After all, it was the same people who rallied against the army to hand power to a civilian government in the first place in 2012. The most important outcome of the January 25 revolution is that it has changed the mindset of the Egyptian people for the foreseeable future. Egyptians have learned to question their fate and hold their government accountable. On June 30, tens of millions of Egyptians went to the streets to express their discontent with the government. If that does not reflect the ultimate spirit of democratic values, then I am not sure what does.

Tamer Nagy Mahmoud is an attorney at an international law firm based in Washington, DC. He has been on secondment in Egypt for the past two years advising civil society on constitutional and legislative reform issues.   

Photo: Ahmed Kassem

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