To watch the head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Sisi pronounce ‘the roadmap’ charting the country’s future was not a moment for rejoicing by true democrats, although for hours before and afterwards celebratory fireworks were being set off in and around Tahrir Square doing just that.
Undoubtedly, those millions taking part in the massive anti-Morsi rallies in Cairo, Alexandria, and throughout Egypt must have felt a surge of political adrenalin that renewed the democratising enthusiasm accompanying Mubarak’s fall from power on January 25, 2011. Yet such resemblances are deeply misleading as the political moment two years ago was one of a transcendent achievement and shared aspirations, reinforced by a strong, if fleeting, sense of creative unity that sent exciting reverberations of hope to every corner of the earth. In contrast, the Sisi statement on July 3, 2013 was a chilling and wooden reminder that Egypt’s prospects for a democratic future have been put on an indefinite hold, and done so allegedly on behalf of ‘democracy.’
At least the Egyptian military at the moment of its reassertion of a guardianship role was not ready to part company with the legitimating mandate of democracy. On the contrary, General Sisi justified this ‘soft coup’ by saying that the armed forces were heeding the demands of the people of Egypt by honouring the overwhelming judgment being passed on Egyptian streets to the effect that the Morsi government were usurping power by seeking to consolidate governmental authority on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring the pluralist nature of Egyptian society, by imposing an allegedly Islamic oriented constitution on an unwilling secular minority, and by exceeding the authority of the slim electoral majority given a year earlier. Besides this, the Morsi government was faulted for not having been able to solve any of Egypt’s pressing economic and social justice problems. In effect, Morsi’s election was now deemed conditional on satisfying the basic demands of the people of Egypt, or at least not driving many millions of them into postures of anger and despair. In effect, genuine elections administered in a manner that give rival candidates a fair opportunity to win are no longer unlimited guarantees that the outcome will be respected until the next election if things don’t work out.
The people in opposition can now believe if they raise their voice loud enough, mobilise what appears to be a discontented majority that revokes the earlier electoral mandate, and if the military elites becomes sympathetic enough, as in Egypt, they can overthrow an elected leadership and start all over again, throw the elected leaders in prison, and institute an entirely different political process.
Of course, the waters of revolutionary change will never be smooth, but some are rougher than others. Already on the first day of post-Morsi Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, which only a year earlier had won the presidential support from more than half the country, was virtually criminalised. Morsi and his presidential advisors were being held under house arrest in the Egyptian Republican Guard Club, the highest Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Badie, and some associates of his have been arrested, the MB TV channel shut down, hundreds of its officials put on a watch list and prohibited from leaving the country, while at the same time the recently adopted constitution of the country, approved by referendum, was summarily declared no longer valid. In the same vein, a longtime Mubarak judicial appointment, Mansour Adly, who had just two days earlier been elevated to become chief of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court was designated and sworn in as interim president, and given the crucial assignment of overseeing the arranging of parliamentary and presidential elections.
Handing back the reins of power
Whereas the January 25 revolution repudiated the Mubarak regime, what is being called the June 30 revolution has handed back the reins of power to a loose anti-Brotherhood coalition of Mubarak remnants and secular elites supported by most Copts. Mohamed ElBaradai as the appointed prime minister has the job of presiding over what is being labelled a government of ‘technocrats,’ that is, not ‘politicians,’ and hopefully, problem-solvers serving the broad public interest in restoring normalcy, especially to the economy.
In important respects, the issue was never really about democracy, whether the electoral version or its populist alternative. It was about two other essentials of collective existence in Egypt: a viable economy and the cultural divide between secularism and Islam. There is no doubt that the Morsi leadership fumbled the ball when it came to either restoring growth, investor confidence, tourism, and a general feeling of hope about Egypt’s economic future or creating a social justice agenda that showed a commitment to fairness, improved conditions for the poor, dedication to the expansion of employment opportunities for the young. It was reasonable to conclude that the Morsi leadership lacked the competence and the empathy to uphold these basic economic and equity expectations that were at the activist core of the anti-Mubarak movement.
Yet this is not the whole story by any means. What makes an assessment based on competence so inconclusive is that the secular opposition, including the Mubarak residue and the Coptic minority, were unwilling as a matter of political principle to live in an Egypt that was governed by Islamists. The old Mubarak sectors of the government that remained in place, including the judiciary, the police, and the interior ministry, threw every possible roadblock in the path of Morsi’s governing policies. Ironically, until the recent crisis only the military, allegedly having made its peace with the Muslim Brotherhood, including receiving assurances about their considerable stake in the economy and broad emergency prerogatives, seemed to be prepared to accept the Muslim Brotherhood victory in the 2012 presidential elections. The anti-Morsi commentators, retired generals and hard-core secularists are now openly acknowledging their complete repudiation of the Brotherhood as an acceptable presence in Egyptian political life, speaking of it as a force dedicated to ‘Islamic fascism,’ as having ‘hijacked’ the revolution and the presidency, and that it is good thing that the armed forces have rescued the Egyptian people from such an Islamic destiny, and are finally cracking down on the MB as harshly as during the Murbarak Era.
Polarising the political system
As Mohammed Ayoob has pointed in a perceptive and balanced assessment of what is happening in Egypt these last several days, this kind of response by the armed forces and the anti-Morsi coalition of very diverse forces, is not even pretending to seek unity in Egypt, but the opposite. It seems determined to again drive the MB underground, which will likely lead to a disenchantment with competitive party politics that is supposed to be the hallmark of constitutional democracy, and dispose the party stalwarts to believe that they are faced with the starkest of alternatives, insurgency or surrender. Instead of overcoming polarisation, the new temporary leadership seems to be moving toward the political suppression of the Islamically oriented pole by coercive means. During this period too little attention is given to the Morsi posture of rejecting the military takeover, urging nonviolent resistance and action within the law. This more aggressive line taken by the interim leadership seems a hazardous and morally dubious course, and one that is certain not to be able to accommodate the pluralist realities of Egypt or of the Arab societies throughout the region. It is a prescription for confrontation outside the arenas of democratic competition, and it makes one wonder about whether this military takeover allegedly needed to save democracy will turn out in another year to have been the farewell song of Egyptian democracy!
There was speculation as recently as a week ago rather widespread speculation that the armed forces might either remain on the sidelines or actually take the side of Morsi in the intensifying confrontation. On the one side, was the cry of tamarod! (‘rebel!’) by the anti-Morsi mobs on the street, while in the presidential palace came the response of tagarod! (‘impartiality,’ also understood as ‘legitimacy’). I would not contend that the armed forces could irresponsibly let Egypt slide further into chaos, especially given growing economic desperation.
It should not be blamed for choosing the side that seemed to have the greater preponderance of public support at this stage, but to couple that choice with the criminalisation of the legitimate government seems like the wrong alternative if the objective was to restore stability and renew the inspiring spirit of inclusiveness in the January 25 triumphal moment. In responding to Mubarak there was an occasion to criminalise those who carried out the oppressive and corrupt policies of the regime for three decades. In responding to Morsi, the appropriate outer limit of reasonable complaint are allegations of incompetence, inexperience, combined with a series of mistakes made under the most difficult of circumstances, including inheriting a bureaucracy that was still beholden to the Mubarak style of politics and committed to its abundant private sector allies. In this difficult situation, we can only hope and pray that the assertion of Judge Adly Mansour, the new interim president of Egypt, that the new order in the country has only one intention: “to restore the glorious Egyptian revolution.”
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.