Déjà Coup?

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Things in Egypt are moving quickly—too quickly for comfort. Since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement warning of a forty-eight hour window to solve Egypt’s political problems, government officials and ministers jumped the sinking ship, as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood found themselves in a struggle for political survival after rocketing to the top of the political food chain only a year earlier. And then the army dropped its hammer. Morsi no longer rules Egypt and the revolution appears to have returned to square one after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

After only four days of mass anti-Morsi protests and counter protests, violent clashes that left eighteen dead and hundreds wounded, and extreme rhetoric and rumors on all sides, the Egyptian military rolled out its armored personnel carriers and troops in an effort to control key state institutions and protest areas. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF) and appointed negotiator between the military and Morsi’s political opposition, spoke to a crowd of millions about a rejuvenated revolution, just as the Egyptian presidency released a statement rejecting what they view as a military coup. Secularist and anti-Morsi protesters celebrated well into the night but Islamists decried an attack on their legitimately elected president and their faith. The question remains: Is military intervention a step forwards or a step backward for Egyptian democracy?

The complexity of what the world is witnessing in Egypt cannot be understated. Its international partners cannot ignore what Islamists are lamenting: Morsi is the first freely elected, civilian president in Egypt’s history. Neither can observers disregard that a forcible removal of Morsi from office by the military is the very definition of a “military coup,” regardless of the individual or group that replaces the incumbent. However, the view that a military coup is an inherently obstacle to democratic development needs to be reexamined in light of the massive popular outrage that has poured out into the streets of Tahrir, the Presidential Palace, and across the country.

Many analysts and government officials struggle with an apparent catch 22: support the Egyptian army’s action and risk hypocrisy in light of calls for democratization, or condemn Morsi’s ouster and risk accusations of standing against the will of millions of Egyptian citizens. Is there a middle ground? Why do so many feel the impulse to celebrate a return to military control? The answer lies in the disastrous mismanagement of Egypt’s transition at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has directly contributed to the most intensely polarized political environment in recent memory. He and the Muslim Brotherhood have practiced exclusionary politics when political consensus proved too difficult, or simply a meaningless pursuit in their calculation. These misguided policies led to a pattern of human rights violations that limited free expression, exacerbated sectarian tensions, and supported government impunity. The political crisis compounded the economic crisis, as the fiscal and budgetary deficits trickled down to the poor and middle class whose need for food and fuel outweighed faith in an Islamist system.

Morsi’s missteps need not be outlined in full–enough ink has been spilled on that already–but suffice it to say that his actions contributed to a legitimacy deficit that finally caught up with him. Is it enough to meet the threshold of a broken contract with the Egyptian people? Although technically, no, twenty-two million signatories to the Tamarod campaign say yes. In their minds, Morsi had swayed so far from his promises of political inclusion, government reform, protection of women and minorities, constitutional consensus, and an economic renaissance that he nullified what little electoral legitimacy was granted to him.

For many anti-Morsi protesters, however, military rule will not satisfy their demands either. General Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s roadmap for the future of Egypt’s transition closely mirrors the popular demands proposed by the Tamarod movement, almost to the letter, while al-Sisi insists that the army will hold no political role in the interim government. With Supreme Constitutional Court chief Adly Mansour at the helm, supported by a transitional government that will include all political ideologies, Sisi avoided the mistake made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. He has carefully positioned a civilian body led by the only other widely supported institution, the judiciary, at the head of any future transitional plans. He has suspended the divisive (and, in the eyes of most, illegitimate) constitution and set the stage for new beginning. What remains unclear, however, is whether or not the military will play a significant role behind the scenes, particularly in light of the low-profile past of an interim president who is practically unknown to the Egyptian public.

What comes next will largely depend on negotiations with political groups, including the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s removal has viciously antagonized those who believe in the Islamist project, and arrests, crackdowns, and travel bans will only heighten these tensions further. Arrest warrants have reportedly been issued for over 300 Muslim Brotherhood members, including leading figures Khairat al-Shater and Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, while deputy chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, Saad al-Katatny and Brotherhood deputy supreme guide Rashad Bayoumi have been arrested. Just as Morsi’s political opponents took to the streets because they felt they had no voice in the new Egypt, Islamists will also revolt if marginalized. Inclusion in the decision making process is essential to prevent violence from escalating to what could potentially reach the level of political assassination. The winners of this latest round of political drama would do well to remember that just as the military turned on them, it could just as easily turn on the secularists if their bickering brings Egypt back to the brink.

No one has the information to definitively say whether this coup will bring Egypt back on course to a democratic transition. The action no doubt sets a dangerous precedent for any future government, and all the old divisions and unreformed instutitions still remain. But it seems that the players in this transitional theater are learning from the mistakes of the past, with even the Muslim Brotherhood most likely taking stock of what went wrong in the past year under Morsi’s rule. Whatever occurs over the next few months, Egypt’s new rulers would do well to remember that its people still matter. If they do not, we may very well be back where we started next year.

Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center

Photo: DNE

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