Fourth of July: Egypt at a Crossroads

On January 25, 2011, the people of Egypt began a nonviolent uprising against 3-decade dictator Hosni Mubarak. On February 11, 2011, Egypt became the second nation of the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region, after Tunisia, to oust a long-standing dictator in this way. Mubarak’s forces killed near 1,000 civilians, but never succeeded in slowing the growth of the nationwide movement.

The revolution inspired protest movements across the world. In Egypt, it led to elections and the first democratically elected government in the nation’s history of more than 10 millennia. The results gave Mohammed Morsi, leader of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a plurality. Morsi formed a coalition with fundamentalist Salafist figures, and became the first elected president.

Over the first year of democratically elected government, Morsi clashed with the legislature, the judiciary, the opposition, the international community, the UN movement to protect women against both random and systemic violence, and eventually, the military. By Sunday, June 30, one year after his term began, Morsi faced tens of millions of Egyptian citizens protesting in cities across the country.

One estimate put the total for Sunday at 35 million, possibly the single largest nonviolent mobilization in any country at any one time. On Monday, the military gave Morsi 48 hours to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the opposition or cease to be the legitimate head of state. Morsi refused to negotiate, refused to share power, threatened rivals and said he would die to retain his office.

On Wednesday, July 3, Morsi again refused to back down and was informed by the military, which had occupied the presidential palace, that he was “no longer head of state”. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi addressed the nation, explaining the decisions that had been made, to “protect the revolution”, adding that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would take over, in the interim, while new elections were planned.

The imposed transition had been negotiated between the leading military generals, the civilian security establishment, opposition leaders, including Mohammed El-Baradei, presumed political leader of the opposition, the Coptic Pope and the leader of Egypt’s leading center of Islamic learning. Among the protesters’ complaints was the escalating persecution of the minority Coptic Christian church and other non-Islamic groups.

Morsi’s government had failed to motivate any real economic recovery, and instead had been accused of rampant and worsening corruption. Attacks on women were seen as being given wide berth, and the Muslim Brotherhood had vehemently opposed the UN’s new standards for protecting against violence against women, refusing to join the international consensus.

The July 3rd “2nd revolution” was essentially a recognition of a multifaceted problem, without the solving of which, many feel, Egypt cannot move forward in carrying out its 2011 revolution: there is still no functioning multi-party system; there is no track-record of any political leadership tolerating real dissent; the complicated process of replacing patronage and corruption with non-political civil society infrastructure, wholly free of state control, had not really begun.

The military might have the motive of protecting its privilege: in the Mubarak era, the military controlled 70% of the Egyptian economy, in one way or another, and has never, as an institution, expressed an interest in letting go of that hegemony. The Morsi government had sought to reduce the military’s role in civilian life, but the military also had another grave and worsening priority to deal with: 35 million people had shut down the country.

In the absence of an economy, percentages of market share matter very little. After Sunday, it was clear that Morsi could no longer govern. It was also clear that he would continue to oppose, as he had done with increasingly authoritarian edicts, any attempt to use the constitutional process to dilute his power or limit its expansion.

Morsi sent armed thugs into the streets to attack the throngs of nonviolent civilian protesters. He went on TV and called them his “supporters”, but their actions led to the deaths of 16 people in one day, and hundreds of injured. The 2011 revolution, and the 2012 election, had led, it seemed, to a dangerous situation that could rapidly degenerate into a nationwide rash of street violence.

It is fair for Muslim Brotherhood supporters to say the deposing of Morsi was a military “coup”. But it is also fair to say that Morsi had abdicated his self-professed “legitimacy” at several points of embarrassingly poor performance, including flagrant opposition to democracy and to human rights. It is also fair for the UK to object to military intervention and for the United States to protect the stability-driven funding of the military by hedging and saying it may not have to be seen as a full “coup”.

Already, the Chief Justice has been sworn in, and there is an interim civilian authority, to which the military has pledged its allegiance and service. If a timetable is set for new elections, and those elections are held in an open and legitimate way, the Egyptian Revolution has a chance at viability.

The first elected government of post-revolutionary Egypt has been ousted by military intervention. But, it is important to recognize that the 2011 revolution was not motivated by and in fact had very little assistance from the Muslim Brotherhood; it was a secular revolution. The truth in Egypt is complicated, and so we have this Fourth of July situation: the military has ousted an Islamist government in order to defend a secular revolution, by overriding the nation’s first democratically elected president.

Today, there is news from Cairo that while Morsi and other leading officials of the Muslim Brotherhood are in military detention, thousands of supporters are now demonstrating, demanding the restoration of the elected coalition government. Celebrations by the massive numbers of protesters in Tahrir Square and around the country continue. Encampments remain, as demonstrators wait to see if their demand for a new democratic leadership will be met.

There are reports that shots have been fired in Cairo and that three supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have died. The military says they used only tear gas and rubber bullets, but though intended to be non-lethal, these can lead to accidental death. There are concerns about clashes spreading, and the military is occupying perceived “flashpoints” around the capital and other major cities.

Both anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi demonstrators are pledging continued nonviolence. Some have suggested it might not be too late for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to abandon the Salafists and form a coalition government with the opposition, under the leadership of El Baradei, whom many see as the nation’s most trusted public figure.

Egypt stands at a crossroads. The number one priority, it seems, will be to keep tempers from flaring, then to determine the fate of the ousted president and his ministers. The new president will have to establish a timeline for new elections, and win buy-in from the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s single largest organized political movement—which at present has vowed not to participate in the new system.

The military intervention has put a challenge to the people of Egypt, a challenge that millions of them demanded they have the opportunity to meet: use the 2011 and 2013 revolutions to build a true democracy, with local control, checks and balances at multiple levels, transparency and an independent judiciary, or languish still longer in the turmoil of a corrupt an dysfunctional incomplete revolution.

The people of Egypt say they are read for this challenge; those who find themselves in positions of leadership must now endeavor to let Egypt live its democracy.

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