Egypt in Crisis: Ten Observations

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi at a rally in Damietta on July 5 (Mohamed Elsayed via Wikimedia Commons)

The violence following the removal of Mohamed Morsi continues to spiral out of control, and is in many respects too senseless to be analyzed. Clearly leaders in both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood must make every effort to end the bloodshed immediately, and justice will require that criminal charges be pressed on both sides. That much is obvious. Much more difficult is trying to come to some understanding of current politics in Egypt and predicting where the country might go next. The following observations are intended to shed some light on that very complex and confused political landscape.

1. An irony worthy of the stage. In a moment of apparent savvy, Morsi seized the opportunity of an August 2012 attack on an outpost in Sinai to clean house in the military leadership and install his own man. It was the zenith of his presidential power, and at the time it felt like the center of gravity in Egypt’s political authority had shifted from the generals to a democratically elected civilian. The man Morsi appointed was Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (see the recent profile at the Daily Beast), the very general who pushed him out of power and is now overseeing a ruthless suppression of the ousted president’s supporters. What must Morsi be thinking of al-Sisi now, as he reflects on his fortunes in his jail cell?

2. Democrats and non-democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has had significant successes at the polls. But they have also had a destructive impact on democratization. Winning at the ballot box does not make someone a friend of democracy. The ballot box is a limited instrument designed to assure that governments represent the interests of all citizens; true democrats respect that principle of representation and are committed to procedures and practices securing the political rights of all segments of civil society. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has used its victories at the ballot box to sop up every bit of power within reach, dominating the writing of the post-revolutionary constitution, appointing loyalists to key ministries, and nominating its own members as governors. When members of the Muslim Brotherhood now claim that the removal of Morsi has deprived them of their democratic rights, they are only half-correct in that they are members of an organization that has itself stepped upon the democratic rights of many Egyptians. Liberals who truly value democracy have been justly alarmed and used nonviolent and democratic means to oppose Morsi’s administration: gathering signatures on the Tamarod (or “Rebel”) petition calling for early presidential elections. The petition declared in thunder that the Brotherhood was not the only constituency in Egypt demanding representation, and that the organization and its political party had overreached in their power grab.

3. Was June 30 a military coup? That petition helps us approach the wrangling over whether recent events constitute a military coup, a recurring motif in the American response to June 30—recurring, of course, because declaring this a coup would trigger a legal requirement to suspend U.S. aid to Egypt. The term has seemed increasingly apt as the military cracks down on its opponents, and as it has become increasingly clear that the interim president, Judge Adly Mansour, is a cipher holding no real power. But we should recall that the removal of Morsi was also triggered by the Tamarod campaign, which gathered over 22 million signatures on a petition stating a lack of confidence in Morsi and calling for early presidential elections. That is a significant expression of popular will, which makes the removal of Morsi much more democratic than it appears at first blush.

4. Serpents in epaulettes. That said, the groundswell of resistance to Morsi allowed the army to do precisely what it has consistently done since the January 25 revolution: seize power for itself while claiming to be responsive to the will of the Egyptian people. The Egyptian military is a vast organization controlling by some estimates as much as 40 percent of the nation’s economy. It has a strong self-perception of being one of the nation’s most important institutions. And yet it is also a military that knows it will never go to war. The self-perception, then, is not propped up by a capacity for victories abroad, but by pretending to be guardians of the people at home. This creates a habit of meddling in politics, and the meddling is always self-interested. Thus the army will never have a good-faith commitment to democratization, which must at some point place the military firmly under civilian control. Though it has at times to aligned itself with the judiciary or the secular left, these have been mere expedients. Shortly after the removal of Mubarak, many members of the movements who praised the army during the revolution found themselves imprisoned and tortured under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF also manipulated the judiciary in turning the Supreme Constitutional Court’s negative ruling on post-revolutionary electoral law into a pretext for forcibly dissolving an elected parliament. The military now has a perfect record of forcing out of office every federal official elected since the January 25 revolution. “The people and the army are one hand” was a chant of the revolution; the sentiment has now been thoroughly coopted by the forces of counter-revolution.

5. El Baradei the Naïve. It is not surprising that Mohamed El Baradei has now resigned as vice president of the post–June 30 government. What’s really surprising is that he took up the post in the first place. Especially from 2009 onward, he used his considerable and well-deserved reputation as former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel peace laureate to emerge as one of the most respected critics of the Mubarak regime. His promise as potential president largely evaporated during the revolution itself, when he was unable to connect emotionally to Tahrir Square. His lack of political acumen showed again in post-revolutionary presidential elections, when he was rapidly eclipsed by Hamdeen Sabbahi as the leading candidate of the secular left. Joining, and thus adding legitimacy to, a government that seemed from the start to be a creature of the military shows the kind of political tone-deafness that is making him more of a liability than an asset to liberalization. It may prove to be a good thing that he appears to have been pushed out of the leadership of Egypt’s liberal alliance, the National Salvation Front.

6. The promise of the April 6 Movement. One also hopes that leadership might arise from the rapidly maturing youth groups of the revolution. If in this latest episode El Baradei showed a willingness to play the dirty game of (though play it badly), leaders of the April 6 Movement have been much more canny and true to their principles in their response to events of June 30. While they strongly objected to Morsi’s presidency, they also remembered well their own sufferings under the SCAF. After June 30 they were sympathetic to pro-Morsi protesters who had become the victims of a security crackdown. And when called upon by the military to show support for the transition, they saw with great clarity that the military was really asking for a blank check violently to repress Morsi supporters. In a highly polarized political environment, they defended right to peaceful protest of those with whom they strongly disagree. And they rejected the military’s attempts to paint everyone in the pro-Morsi camps as terrorists.

7. Nasr City is NOT the new Tahrir Square. Though the army’s claims are inflated and its response draconian, we must stress that more than a few Morsi supporters are in fact terrorists: they wish to advance their cause through a campaign of fear. Their demands for the president’s reinstatement have consistently been delivered in threatening tones. Their message is clear: “Return Morsi to office or we will unleash mayhem.” The past several weeks have seen some Morsi supporters engage in violent attacks on apartment buildings, government offices, churches, schools, and police stations. They have repeatedly exchanged gunfire with security forces and the military, using peaceful protesters as human shields and firing at security forces from Cairo’s minarets. Though most within the Muslim Brotherhood are peaceful and willing to work through legitimate political processes, there are also clearly violent elements who wish to gain power through force. The full-scale assault on pro-Morsi camps has been criminal, but some security measures did need to be adopted in the wake of June 30.

8. Why is the Gulf so pleased? One striking consequence of Morsi’s removal has been the influx of cash from Gulf states: $8 billion in aid pledged from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Why the sudden generosity? Morsi had made efforts to stimulate investment and to smooth the historical rift between the Brotherhood and the House of Saud, and yet King Abdullah was perhaps the foreign leader most openly exultant about his ouster. Gulf monarchies have a couple of things to gain. First, the Wahhabism they have carefully cultivated preaches passive acceptance of worldly authority. They have worked for decades to associate authentic Islamic identity with submission to morally bankrupt absolutist regimes, and enjoyed lamentable success in doing so. The last thing they want is a democratic Islamic politics to blossom in the most populous Arab state. From their perspective it is much better for Egypt to be under the thumb of a military committed ruthlessly to crushing the influence of the Brotherhood. They will use their financial influence to encourage the army on its current path, and to diminish any countervailing pressure that might be applied from the West. A military regime is the devil they know, and one they know to be fundamentally conservative in its approach to economic matters. Unlike a government of the secular left, the military will not have any funny new economic ideas that might adversely affect Gulf investors to the benefit of Egypt’s poor.

9. It’s 1659 all over again. Egypt has come to look more and more like England between the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660. In a tumultuous twenty months, England saw six changes in government, most of them initiated by short-sighted army officers. In the midst of the chaos, one of parliament’s former generals, George Monck, marched his army from Scotland to London with the promise of bringing stability to the Commonwealth. Ultimately, he used his position of military strength to force parliament to readmit its royalist members, setting in motion England’s return to monarchy after eleven years of experimentation in republicanism. Al-Sisi looks very much like an Egyptian George Monck, using a position of military strength to promise stability to a populace weary of tumultuous political transition. If anything his connections to the prerevolutionary regime are tighter than Monck’s were, the military having been for the past half century a pipeline to Egypt’s Presidential Palace. Continued instability will favor a return to power of the ancien régimeand the further political marginalization of the secular left. Certainly news this week of the imminent release of Mubarak from prison signals the current regime’s friendliness toward the former dictator and his tribe of cleptocrats. The army has also already appointed 19 generals to direct Egypt’s governorates, a favorite tactic, as aptly noted in New York Times, of the old government. Al-Sisi and the army look very much as though they are poised to reestablish the prerevolutionary political order.

10. What comes next? Egypt has become a wildly unpredictable place. What appears to be most likely in the medium term, however, is that the military will continue its effort to break up the influence of the Brotherhood; there is already talk from the new government of banning the organization once again. The re-drafting of the constitution currently underway may include an article proscribing political parties organized on religious grounds—that may seem like a positive step on the path toward secular liberal democracy, but it is in fact a revival of Article 5 of Mubarak’s constitution. Having dismantled the Brotherhood’s political machinery to their satisfaction, a presidential election will be called with the military strongly backing one of their own. They have already tried this since the ouster of Mubarak, offering Omar Suleiman (an intelligence officer under Mubarak) as a viable president. In the last presidential elections, they gave very strong support to have another member of the old guard, Ahmed Shafik. Next time around, they may push for Shafik again or, perhaps, urge al-Sisi to put on civilian clothing and stand for election. Many segments of the public seem to be showering him with adulation, so if al-Sisi ran for president today he just might win. And if he or another military strongman becomes president, then the revolution of 2011 will look very much like a glorious but flitting triumph over tyranny.


Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor at the University of Illinois with appointments in the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of English, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. His latest book is Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @FGMohamed.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Feisal G. Mohamed’s blog at “The Huffington Post.”