Even when its nerves jangle with the threat of violence, as well as during its less intense moments, Tahrir Square's effervescence can persuade the most level headed citizens to venture down more radical paths. The square this week has channelled nationwide anger at the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration’s perceived arrogance and failure to grow the economy, to create (or perhaps simply abet) a contradiction in terms: a military coup to overthrow an elected administration, supported by democrats.
Commander-in-chief on the morning of 3 July, by dawn the next day Mohammed Morsi was in military custody. US President Barack Obama and other leaders have expressed reservations, but Egyptian 'democrats' celebrated. Muslim Brotherhood supporters licked their wounds – in some cases literally, as the police had stood back while Brotherhood targets were attacked which aggravated the mood of the crisis before the army’s intervention.
Few doubt the Morsi administration's lack of delivery. Millions sought change in protests that had been highly anticipated in the weeks before 30 June, when the Tamarrod (Rebel!) movement's activists promised to flex their muscles. The mainstream liberal opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) and even ultra-conservative Salafist groups fell into line. As David Butter has observed, their programme was based on calling for Morsi's impeachment, to be followed by a fresh presidential election.
New elections will be held, sooner rather than later, military intelligence commander General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the 19-strong Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF) rising star, announced on 3 July. How the Brotherhood – still Egypt's largest political force – will feature is unclear. Dozens of their senior leadership have been rounded up and many have stepped back into the underground.
The SCAF called for a 'technocrat' cabinet. Supreme Constitutional Court chief justice Adli Mansour – rather than a general or the SCAF’s appointee – is to act as interim head of state. His appointment, in line with the now suspended constitution, seems intended to underline the SCAF's determination that this should be seen as a 'soft coup', meant only to solve the problems posed by Morsi and his underperforming government.
With millions of Egyptians, as well as international investors, looking for improved delivery of economic policy, technocrat appointees’ elevation to head key ministries is likely to win praise from international business.
But be careful what you wish for. The SCAF is once again centre-stage in Egyptian politics, and they will find it hard to fully disengage. The Muslim Brotherhood will regroup, with its militants now intensely wary of dealing with the military. Voters may doubt their voice counts at all. Dissent may find new expression in violence, in the country’s major urban areas, as well as in pressure points such as Sinai.
Setback for democracy
A putsch against Egypt’s first democratically-elected civilian president hardly sets a positive precedent for the democratic process in North Africa. It is a message that is being digested in Tunisia and other countries where Muslim Brotherhood-related parties have made great strides in the wake of the Arab spring.
Western finger-wagging will carry little traction in Egypt's nationalist, populist political culture. But a majority of Egyptians agree that more transparent institutions and decision-making, and government by elected representatives are essential. It is difficult to see how this equates with tanks on the streets, which reflect the imposition of one institution’s will over others.
It is again for the SCAF to oversee credible elections. Serious candidates may present themselves. The name of former League of Arab State secretary-general and foreign minister Amr Musa is on several lips. Announcing the coup, General Sisi was flanked by a range of political leaders, including Nobel Prize-winning Mohammed El Baradei and prominent Salafist Galal Morra. There is speculation that the Salafist Nour Party could provide an ultra-conservative Islamist flavour to a future coalition.
But such consensus cannot be expected to persist much longer than the post-party hangover. And neither will the Brotherhood depart a political stage it has operated on since its creation by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928; they may indeed confirm that it operates more effectively underground than in office.
Dependent on hand-outs from a handful of key allies led by Qatar – whose own activist foreign policy is under scrutiny as new Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Khalifa Al-Thani settles into the Doha hot seat – the economy remains vulnerable. A further period of political volatility will do little to resolve the key issues: how to give Egyptians a greater voice in running their economy and how to generate the significantly increased national income needed to meet the estimated 83 million population’s aspirations.
While Tahrir celebrated, The New York Times reported one Islamist supporter declaring that 'Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything'. Such sentiments do not suggest that even the softest of coups can expect to bring consensus or resolution to Egypt's apparently intractable problems.