Breaking Precedent in Egypt


The intervention of the armed forces in Egypt’s political crisis has evoked fears that a dangerous precedent is being set: military intervention today could mean that whenever Egyptians are upset with the political status quo in the future, they will know that mass demonstrations will prompt military intervention. This precedent will render Egyptian democracy forever precarious. 

These fears come much too late. Not only has the precedent already been established, it has already been learned and internalized by the Egyptian people. When helicopters draping the flags of Egypt and its armed forces flew over Cairo’s neighborhoods last Monday evening people went wild. Fireworks, car horns, and the chant of “irhal” (leave) echoed throughout the city.

As a foreigner, it took a minute to piece the message together. The timing was significant. The helicopters came slightly before dusk, just as residents were deciding whether to join the demonstrations marching toward Tahrir, the Presidential Palace, and other points of assembly in the city.

The flags were also significant. Combined with the 48-hour ultimatum issued by the army just hours earlier, the flags conveyed that the armed forces had sided with the demonstrators. With the army comes protection and protection lessens the risk of participating in demonstrations. The army’s tacit message was clear: “Go protest.”

Even more significant was that the average Egyptian understood the message instantaneously. It took no more than the reverberating sound of helicopter blades and the sight of a flag to incite celebration on the streets. People knew what it meant and confidently they took to the streets.

Egyptians’ prompt comprehension of the military’s signal is understandable in light of their recent history. Over the past two and a half years Egyptians have had ample experience with military intervention in politics. The January 2011 revolution occurred in eighteen days not because the institutions constructed by former President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors collapsed under the weight of popular demonstrations, but because the military chose the politically expedient measure of forcing Mubarak to resign.

The election of former President Mohamed Morsi six months later saw an ostensible attempted military coup. Days before Morsi’s electoral victory, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the lower house of Egypt’s parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forced (SCAF) issued a decree granting itself control over the budget, legislation, and constitution-writing process. Upon confirmation President Morsi found himself head of a rump state. It was only with clever political maneuvering and the backing of the international community that Morsi was able to wrestle power from SCAF. 

In January the death sentences of twenty-one Egyptians for their involvement in a soccer riot in February 2012 set off another crisis that spurred military intervention. Violence sparked by the verdict led Morsi to impose a state of emergency in the cities of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia. As unrest spread General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that the crisis “could lead to the collapse of the state.” Residents of these cities proceeded to ignore the state of emergency and the military stepped in to police the streets and maintain security. 

Last week’s events in Egypt are only the most recent instance of a military intervention to quell political crisis. For many Egyptians this is not cause for alarm. While the military’s past actions toppled a dictator and circumscribed executive authority, they were always perceived as being in the interest of peace and stability. It seems to have made little difference that Morsi was democratically elected. More important is that his leadership brought economic decline, food and fuel shortages, political exclusion, human rights abuses, and domestic unrest.

It is thus not surprising that Egyptians are celebrating military intervention. For many Egyptians the military has become the known and trusted mechanism to revise the political system. Military intervention in Egyptian politics, in other words, has become normalized. Egyptians know what to expect when they take to the street en masse. And the recent events are fulfilling their expectations. 

These expectations are very problematic for Egyptian democracy. So long as mass demonstrations present a popularly justifiable opportunity for the military to operate beyond the scope of the law, Egyptian democracy will remain tenuous. This will be true until demonstrators take to the street desiring that politicians, not the military, respond to their demands. The long-term success of democracy in Egypt will depend on altering what is expected and acceptable in light of mass demonstrations.

Last week’s protests presented an opportunity for Egypt’s political leaders to break the precedent of military intervention in politics by brokering a political solution. Unfortunately, the military’s actions denied Egypt’s politicians a real opportunity to compromise. In the lead up to the protests of June 30th Morsi remain intransigent, refusing to acknowledge the scale and veracity of his opposition. Then, by issuing the 48-hour ultimatum merely one day after protests began, the military denied Morsi time adjust his perceptions of the situation and removed any incentive for either side to compromise.

The transitional roadmap also presents little prospect for change. Despite the transition being managed by a technocratic government, the process is likely dominated by the military behind the scenes. It remains unclear how the members of the constitutional committee will be selected and what role, if any, the military will play in the constitution-writing process. What is clear is that the military remains the key arbitrator in Egyptian politics. Back by popular demand, this fact seems unlikely to change anytime soon. 

Politicians resolving a political crisis on their own may be the only way to break the precedent of military intervention in Egyptian politics. However, for this to occur politicians must be capable of compromise, a skill at which they have remained remarkably inept. It is in this sense that last week’s crisis was a missed opportunity. Perhaps after the next crisis there will truly be reason to celebrate.

Avery Schmidt is a graduate student the Harvard Kennedy School.  He previously served with the Peace Corps in Morocco and has conducted research in Sri Lanka, Israel, and Georgia.

Photo Credit

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