As Egypt’s shaky democratic transition remains beset by chaos, worsening economic conditions, military activism, and socio-ideological division, the country runs a real risk of implosion. Egypt’s Sinai remains an increasingly lawless sanctuary for militants, more Egyptians find themselves living below the poverty line, and Morsi loyalists are relentless in their efforts to reinstate their deposed leader, placing them squarely in the crosshairs of the army and security apparatuses.
Widespread demonstrations by the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement gave the Egyptian military a pretext by which to reassert its power in Egyptian politics. That is not to say that Morsi’s shortfalls as president – the catalyst for the demonstrations – should be overlooked. However, while many of Morsi’s actions contravened the tenets of democratic governance, the popular military coup that deposed him was far from a positive development in Egypt’s political transition. Sectarianism is on the rise and the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has alienated scores of Egyptians from the political process. Both of these developments will have far-reaching ramifications for Egypt’s long-term stability and democratic viability.
In every nascent democracy, a sense of loyalty or political attachment to the country’s newly-formed democratic process is vital. In the case of Egypt, an unpopular elected president should have been ousted via the ballot box or constitutional process, not by force (in fact, Egyptians should have demanded a provision in the new constitution with a process for legally removing a standing president from power). Morsi’s extralegal ouster, within the context of a fragile political transition, sets a dangerous precedent for the future of Egypt’s democratic experiment because it effectively provides the army a veto on Egypt’s political future. The signal being sent is that the army may legitimately remove any future democratically-elected leader that falls out of favor with the people and/or the country’s military leadership. In principle, this includes any future liberal president as well.
Interestingly, the anti-Morsi movement has entrusted the army with the role of guardian of Egyptian democracy. The danger of this move is that it accepts the army’s dominant role in Egyptian politics without questioning what such a view might actually entail. So far, the new regime has proven to be as undemocratic and illiberal as the old one, as evidenced by its arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate use of deadly force, and closure of several television stations covering the Brotherhood protests. Moreover, post-Morsi Egypt has experienced a remilitarization of state institutions (including the restoration of the Mubarak-era secret police units), which many liberals have strangely tolerated. This all suggests that many would rather have a military-backed ruler over an elected Islamist; a view that doesn’t bode well for long-term political stability.
The army’s goals and the people’s aspirations do not always coincide. Egypt’s military elite has ulterior motives in addition to its traditional role of protector of the country’s territorial integrity and security. These goals include the preservation of the military’s institutional independence, and more importantly in terms of corruption, the protection of its own economic interests. The Egyptian military is involved in several industries in the domestic economy, and estimates as to the extent of this involvement range anywhere from 5-40% of the Egyptian economy.
Under Morsi, the army likely feared for its independence. Last August, Morsi fired his defense minister, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, who was also the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (the military junta that ran Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster). He was replaced with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, whom Morsi thought to be an Islamist sympathizer. (New revelations suggest al-Sisi harbored suspicions about democratization in the Middle East as well as a belief that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible). Morsi also forced several senior SCAF generals into retirement and annulled the junta’s constitutional amendments restricting executive powers. He also disregarded the military decree that dissolved the Islamist-packed Parliament and tried to amass political power as an insurance policy against competing institutions of the state. Although Egypt’s (suspended) Islamist-slanted constitution retained the military’s independence and its virtual supremacy in state matters, Morsi tried to tame the military by gradually placing it under civilian control, though ultimately to no avail. The anti-Morsi protests gave Egypt’s powerful generals a justification to sideline and eventually oust the sitting president and to dismantle all of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political gains.
A denouncement of the military coup should not be construed as a defense of Morsi’s presidency. Morsi was by no means an exemplary democratic leader. For example, Morsi seriously erred when he issued an unpopular decree on November 22 of last year, declaring his presidential decisions to be immune from judicial review (a decree that was later reversed amid public outcry). He also made political decision-making an exclusive process reserved for Brotherhood officials. Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Morsi continued many of the abusive state practices of the Mubarak regime, including the use of military courts for civilians and the toleration of police abuses. In fact, Morsi even reintroduced the same emergency laws under Mubarak that he once decried, including indefinite detention without trial. Press freedom deteriorated drastically due to official censorship, including replacing the chief editors at Egypt’s state-owned publications with more complacent journalists. The Islamist leader’s administration frequently detained dissident journalists and activists who were critical of his leadership, filing four times more lawsuits for ‘insulting the president’ in just one year than Mubarak filed in his 30-year reign.
Morsi’s major weakness was that he proved incapable of uniting all Egyptians under a broad banner, instead choosing to focus on the consolidation of presidential powers and the preservation of his narrowing support base. In this regard, Morsi was not unlike his predecessor. But Morsi loyalists will point to a stubborn Mubarak-era (anti-Brotherhood) judiciary, an activist military and collusion between the remnants of the old regime and crony businessmen as reasons for Morsi’s strengthening of the presidential office. While this intricate plot to sabotage Morsi may not be wholly inaccurate, the narrative does little to explain Morsi’s stubbornness and uncompromising style. In the end, Morsi misplayed his 51 percent electoral mandate, believing it to bestow legitimacy upon any and all of his presidential decisions. He could have played a more decisive role in the weeks leading to the coup by promoting national dialogue, forming a national unity government, or calling early elections. His rigid form of leadership only added fuel to the fire at a time when Egyptians were frustrated with the mishandling of the economy and a plethora of unfulfilled promises.
Both the secular liberals, represented by the National Salvation Front and the ultra-conservative Salafists, represented by the Al-Nour Party, belonged to the political coalition that supported Morsi’s ouster, though for different reasons. For the liberals, Morsi was becoming indiscernible from his predecessor; he was pushing through an Islamist agenda that disrespected the rights of minorities and threatened the freedoms that millions of liberal-minded Egyptians had fought for during the uprising against Mubarak. On the other hand, Salafists believed Morsi did not push hard enough for Sharia to be the sole basis of the constitution and the foundation of Egypt’s laws. The Salafists, whose support was crucial for Morsi’s narrow win against Ahmed Shafiq, felt betrayed when Morsi reneged on a promise to include Salafists in key positions of power. Instead, he merely gave them advisory roles, whereas Brotherhood loyalists were always consulted first. For political reasons, Al-Nour’s opposition to Morsi was also a strategic move to carve out a large base of support from the Islamist electorate in light of the Brotherhood’s declining popularity.
Rather than setting up another ruling military council to govern the country, Egypt’s ruling general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi – who himself was appointed minister of defense by Morsi – named the chief justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court Adly Mansour as interim president, thus putting a civilian face on a military coup. But there is no doubt that Mansour is part of the old order; the ones who are truly calling the shots wear military uniforms.
Recent clashes between security forces and Islamists are extremely troubling, as thousands of Egyptians (mainly Morsi supporters) have been killed in demonstrations across the country. At least 638 were killed on August 14 alone, making it the bloodiest day since the 2011 uprising broke out. Morsi remains under military detention and scores of Brotherhood officials have been rounded up and likewise detained. Thousands of otherwise moderate Egyptians risk being alienated by an increasingly brutal military-backed police state. Even Egypt’s most prominent liberal and former IAEA chief, Mohammad el-Baradei, has resigned from his post as vice president following the violence. Although the Interior Ministry’s broad authorization for police to use deadly force is disturbing, the desecration of Coptic churches and the torching of police stations, government buildings and main roads by pro-Morsi Islamists provide a context by which Egypt’s security forces can demand this authority.
For its part, the Obama administration has been playing with semantics by refusing to call Morsi’s ouster a ‘coup.’ Under a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act, the U.S. is required to cut aid to any country that undergoes a military-backed coup d’état. Interestingly, much of the aid to Egypt ends up in the hands of its de facto ruling generals who have been rewarded for maintaining the peace with Israel for nearly 35 years. In addition, Egypt provides Washington with open access to the Suez Canal and military over-flights with very few restrictions. However, certain elements within the Obama administration doubtlessly feel duty-bound to invoke the law by declaring that Morsi’s ouster was a coup, thereby halting $1.3 billion in aid. This is the primary leverage that Washington has over Egypt’s government, and it could in theory be used to apply pressure on Egyptian generals to expedite a resumption of democratic process.
The events that have unfolded cannot be reversed; Egypt has crossed the point of no return. Like Mubarak, Morsi was an uncharismatic and unpopular president, yet he never managed to tether the main institutions of the state – the police, the army, the bureaucracy, or the judiciary – to the whims of his government’s control. (Had he actually accomplished this, or tampered with the electoral process to deprive the people of democratic recourse, the legitimacy of the military coup would be harder to challenge by those suspicious of the army’s constant incursion into the political sphere.) Egypt is much less stable and much more polarized than it was on June 30. And while the generals hold the keys to the direction of Egypt’s future transition, their main concern seems to be the consolidation of the army’s position as Egypt’s established kingmaker. Any attempt to sideline the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party from the Egyptian political process will only galvanize its ardent supporters and radicalize the organization. In addition, the more repressive and brutal Egypt’s police state becomes, the greater the likelihood of prolonged chaos. In just two years, two of Egypt’s presidents have fallen from power. Let’s hope a better fate lies in store for its next leader.
Chris Mansur is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com