4 July 2013

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Egypt's first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, overthrown last night, managed to unite strange bedfellows in opposition to his leadership in his first year in office.

A disparate array of Egypt's eclectic political forces are now celebrating people power in Tahrir Square, while the authoritarian governments of the region, including those who ban all popular protests in their own countries, are also delighted to see the Muslim Brotherhood weakened. Liberals, trade unionists, more conservative salafist Islamists and supporters of Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, are all cheering what they see as a second phase of revolution.

Meanwhile, the US is on the back foot, not having wanted to be seen to help push an elected president out but also wary of using the word 'coup', which would require them to suspend military aid and thus lose both leverage and US defence jobs.

There is considerable potential for anti-western sentiment to rise in the coming weeks; Morsi had taken care not to alienate the US in case it tried to overthrow him, but ironically some of his internal challengers have capitalized on the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood was too close to the West. The next president may learn to focus on the army and the streets first and foremost, with the approval of the West a less important concern.

'Popular coup'

Many of the celebrating Egyptians are angry that Western media are calling Morsi's overthrow a coup, saying this is unfair because it had wide popular support. Indeed, the army moved only after a wide grassroots campaign brought millions to the streets. Morsi had not been particularly threatening to the army, and it does not seem to have been acting to defend a direct challenge to its interests. But coups that enjoy popular support are by no means unprecedented. And when an army suspends the constitution and announces the overthrow of an elected president, it fits most definitions of a coup. Now Egypt has no constitution, no parliament and no election timetable.

Supporters of the military's move also say that the army does not want to rule. It tried this immediately after Mubarak was overthrown, and saw its usual popularity start to erode, as its inexperience with government quickly showed and as its crude approach to internal security sparked more protests. Indeed, it is normal for modern, post-cold-war military coups to be temporary and transitional, especially in countries like Egypt that need Western aid. But even a one-off military intervention sets out clear red lines for future politics. 

Who governs?

While the army may not want to run the country day to day, it is likely to be content with a fairly weak coalition government of technocrats who won't interfere with its key interests: maintaining its economic privileges, avoiding any risk of prosecutions for human rights abuses, and preventing media investigation of both these issues. 

The head of the armed forces General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has announced a roadmap for a transition, including a transitional government of national unity, a committee to suggest amendments to the constitution (which was passed last year in a low-turnout referendum boycotted by the Brotherhood's opponents), and new parliamentary and presidential elections at a date yet to be determined. He also said there would be new ethical guidelines for the media. The immediate reports of raids on Muslim Brotherhood television stations indicated that this is unlikely to mean any improvement in freedom of speech. Reports, too, that arrest warrants are being issued for 300 Muslim Brotherhood members raise serious questions about whether the next elections will be free and fair. 

The proposed interim government of national unity will seek to take a more consensus based approach than Morsi did. This will hardly be difficult as he alienated such a wide range of groups with his approach to the constitution, judiciary, issues of cultural identity, and attitudes to opposition, among many other things. But since Egypt's political scene is very fragmented, this may also make it harder to make tough decisions, and easier for the military to remain the key power-broker. Whoever eventually becomes the next elected president will also need to be wary of offending the military, since the army proved the decisive factor in unseating the last two. 

Deeply divided

The Brotherhood overreached themselves in many ways in Egypt, overestimated their support, and failed to listen to the opposition, not just dismiss them as foreign-backed counter revolutionaries, the old trope used by most authoritarian governments.

But being forcibly overthrown just a year after the presidential election means Morsi barely had the chance to fail in the eyes of his supporters. In the face of a military coup, the Brotherhood will continue to see itself as the group with democratic legitimacy, though for its opponents, it tended towards a 'tyranny of the majority' to such an extent that some have ironically come to see the military intervention as the better safeguard of democracy. The Brotherhood's support base is likely to harden behind it. Although they may not represent the majority of Egyptian society, they're still the largest and best-organized force, with the numbers to mount massive protests and thus to affect the economy. Being forcibly overthrown is not going to make them give up on wanting power, but raises major questions about their future strategy. If they come to think peaceful elections are not a credible option, that could be very dangerous. 

Islamism in the region

The secular authoritarian rulers of the Arab world will be satisfied to see the Brotherhood dealt another blow. They prefer the more known quantity of the Egyptian army. In another case of strange bedfellows, the quickest congratulations came from the foreign minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose country jailed over 60 suspected Islamist dissidents earlier in the week, and from President Bashar Assad of Syria, who claimed this was the end of political Islam.

But the Egyptian army was only enabled to move by a mass mobilization. And the mass protests are a reminder that the people power possibilities of the Arab spring are still a potent force, even if they are struggling to get beyond undermining regimes and towards developing new power structures. Authoritarian governments have been warning their people democracy will only bring them Islamists; soon they may need to find new bogeymen.