AMMAN, Jordan– “Revolution or coup?” seems to be everyone’s question as Egypt’s political crisis deepens following the military overthrow last week of the country’s first democratically elected president in modern times.
At least 40 people were killed and 300 more were injured in Cairo on Monday, medical sources said, after gunmen opened fire on supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi outside the Republican Guard headquarters where his Muslim Brotherhood supporters believe he is being held under house arrest. These join what is becoming a mounting list of casualties throughout the country.
Tensions are soaring as the Brotherhood called the killings a “massacre,” but the army maintains that a “terrorist group” had tried to storm the barracks.
An escalating and ever-deadly struggle has erupted between the Egyptian army, which overthrew Mursi last Wednesday after mass opposition demonstrations demanded his resignation, and the Brotherhood, which has denounced what it called a coup.
The Brotherhood and its supporters demand that Mursi be reinstated, while the military and the opposition coalition say his time has run out and that a new roadmap for democratic governance must be drawn up and fresh elections held. The army has arrested other prominent Brotherhood members, including deputy Khairat El-Shater, who it accused of inciting violence.
“I will not call it a military coup,” said Nabil Elaraby, the Secretary General of the Arab League based in Cairo. “What happened was intervention by the military to respond to the massive demonstration reflecting the desire and determination of the Egyptian people to return to real democracy.”
“It can’t be a military coup if generals bring in the head of the constitutional court after consultations with political parties, the head of Al Azhar [a major Sunni Islamic educational institution], the Egyptian Coptic Pope, and youth activists with the desire to establish a democratic system,” the top Egyptian diplomat argued.
But political analyst Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics believes that what has transpired in the past days has “undermined the foundation of the fragile democratic experiment in Egypt.”
“Has the army takeover resolved the underlying political and social tensions and divisions or has it exacerbated these? Also has what has happened deepened and widen the polarization of Egyptian society?” he asked.
The beginning of the end
Observers believe that Morsi’s end began last November, just five months into his four-year presidential term. Then, the political novice issued several decrees that placed himself and the Brotherhood-dominated parliament above judicial review. Reacting to the overt power play, demonstrators took to the streets, calling Morsi a “new pharaoh,” a term applied to his predecessors, Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat.
Meanwhile liberals, leftists and Christians abandoned their parliamentary seats to protest the moves, while the assembly rushed through a draft constitution and passed it. Critics argued the new constitution permitted conservative Islamic institutions to gain wide-ranging powers. Others accused the Brotherhood’s secretive Guidance Council of controlling executive decisions, rather than Morsi himself.
Gerges said that Morsi, who was elected one year ago, and his Muslim Brotherhood party “did not appreciate the will of the Egyptian people, and overreached.”
“The Islamists were too ambitious for their own good and their movement. They alienated not only the secular opposition, but the majority of Egyptian with their economic mismanagement. They tried to entrench Islamist rule in state institutions,” he said.
Evan Hill, writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, believes that crisis awakened the opposition to “a harsh reality: they were going to keep losing this game, and the Brotherhood was not going to stop playing. The only solution was to change the rules. They united for the first time under the banner of the National Salvation Front.”
But for Gerges, while it’s one thing to acknowledge the blunders made by Morsi and the Brotherhood, he said “it’s another to say that what the military did is a recipe for a democratic future.”
He sees the opposition’s call on the military to “intervene in the way it did” as the opposition “trying to climb on the shoulders of the army to gain power.”
Analysts believe that other options should have been pursued that would have stopped short from ousting Egypt’s first elected civilian president. The army could have pressured Morsi to appoint a new prime minister from the opposition or forced him to sit down with them to appoint a new attorney general to revisit and revise the constitution. However, given the Brotherhood’s numbers and powers, some wonder whether these less extreme outcomes would have worked.
Khaled Daoud, spokesman of the National Salvation Front of opposition parties, pointedly remarked, “Egypt is not the first country to impeach a president.”
Daoud admitted to voting for Morsi, not because he shares his ideological beliefs but because there wasn’t much other choice given the other presidential candidate, Ahmad Shafik, formerly served under Mubarak.
Daoud said Morsi’s popularity quickly plummeted from 51 to 28 percent. “We couldn’t risk the country going on like that,” he said, adding that “national reconciliation was necessary to save Egypt.”
The Egyptian opposition is a patchwork of political tendencies now ranging from leftists, liberals and Nasserist elements. It called on the military to intervene as a “corrective measure” to put the revolution back on track. Youth activists rose to the fore once again, spearheading the Tamarod — meaning “Rebellion” — movement and renewing the spirit of the January 25 revolution and the public’s will to see change on the ground.
Until recently, it also included the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour party. Its presence gave a broader legitimacy to the coalition with the inclusion of an Islamist grouping in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In response to the latest violence, however, the Nour party, which initially supported the military intervention, has now suspended its participation in stalled talks to form an interim government for the transition to fresh elections. Angered by Morsi’s attempt to monopolize power, the party had engaged in an ideological and political struggle against the Brotherhood to win hearts and minds among a similar constituency.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert on political Islam, warned that if the opposition coalition lost the Salafist party, “they will have thousands of al-Nour party supporters joining the Brotherhood in the streets.”
The Nour party had also opposed the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former UN nuclear watchdog chief, as interim prime minister. He is believed to be the military’s pick for the post.
Some observers say that while the opposition has learned from past mistakes, it still needs to be more organized and work together to provide a positive blueprint to tackle Egypt’s serious economic, social and political ills.
“It all depends on the next six months of the transitional process, whether the opposition will be able to put its house in order, institutionalize itself, distance itself from the military and convince Egyptians that they are not really trying to isolate the Brotherhood and return to the old days. It’s unclear how well they would do in the next round of elections,” Gerges said.
The world reacts
The escalating chaos will also further complicate Egypt’s relations with the U.S. and other Western allies. They had supported Morsi as the country’s first freely elected leader and now are reassessing policies toward the military-backed group that forced him out. There has been some anti-American and anti-imperialist sentiment among the opposition due to the perception that the West had upported Morsi’s presidency.
The U.S. Congress remains divided on what to do with Egypt’s $1.5 billion in foreign aid. U.S. law requires the suspension of taxpayer funding to countries where a democratically elected government is deposed by a military coup. The Obama administration has refrained from using the term, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has urged for cutting the aid “until there is a new constitution and a free and fair election.”
“Mohammed Morsi was a terrible president. Their economy is in terrible shape thanks to their policies, but the fact is, the United States should not be supporting this coup,” McCain said.
That said, some of Morsi’s opponents accuse him and the Brotherhood of pursuing similar neoliberal economic policies to those of Mubarak by laying great store in the free market as the driver behind financial growth and wealth.
“The opposition believes in more state intervention and distributive policies, but I don’t expect any radical economic policy,” said LSE’s Gerges.
Gerges also expressed concern for the potential radicalization of the mainstream Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt.
“There are many young Islamists who believe that democracy has been tried and found wanting. For them, there is no more reason to participate in the political process. But without them, how can you have a democracy in a country where the Islamists represent the most powerfully organized political group?” he asked.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, hardline Islamists created the Egyptian chapter of Ansar al-Sharia – promising armed resistance against the country’s new government.
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