Recent events in Egypt mark a new phase in the country’s turbulent politics. President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow by the armed forces in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power. Beyond the immediate outcome, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty and caused further splits in society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.
The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society who had either not voted for him or had supported him reluctantly.
Egypt’s Christian minority, about 10 percent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by the new constitution pushed through by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy. The Morsi administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”
There are problems with this narrative, however. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. In the wake of the military coup, large demonstrations in support of the deposed president cannot be disregarded. And then the military crackdown against the Brotherhood leadership.
In one of the bloodiest incidents in Egypt’s recent history, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. Bloodshed continues on a daily basis. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.
These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military. This draconian political experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.
The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility. There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On July 6, the New York Times published an account of the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh. According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a final offer which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.
For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was to begin. The State Department had no comment on America’s role.
Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F-16 aircraft to the military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. In President Obama’s preferred scenario, any change will be under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. Washington’s latest remedy, in its fundamentals, is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and subsequently joined the U.S. alliance.