A four-day struggle between Egyptian protestors and their first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi started on the 30th of June and ended up with his ouster on the 3rd of July. The multi-million demonstrations, calling for early presidential elections after only one year of Morsi in office, have sparked debate on legitimacy, the value of elections and raised crucial questions on the role of the army and the future of Egypt’s infant democracy.
The ouster, orchestrated wisely by the Commander in Chief (CIC) General Abdel Fatah El Sisy, was accompanied by other decisions such as the temporary suspension of the constitution, reforming some of its articles and the formation of a technocratic cabinet. Awaited for several hours, El Sisy’s decisions cheered up the demonstrators and angered Morsi supporters and allies, leading to violence between the two camps in the following days. Though often described by foreign observers as a coup, the army’s intervention can be seen from a different angle.
The demonstrations were first called for by the youth movement Rebel, launched earlier this year. According to the movement, 22 million citizens signed its petition demanding the resignation of former President Morsi, elected by about 12 million citizens a year ago. The petition also calls for early presidential elections. However, the latest Egyptian constitution, written and approved under Morsi’s rule, does not recognize petitions, which made the signatures a pressure rather than a practical mechanism for change.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – and its Islamic allies consequently replied with “preemptive” demonstrations and sit-ins launched a week before June 30th named “No to Violence and Yes to Legitimacy”. Ironically, some of the MB speakers and radical figures threatened during the event to “crush” the anti-Morsi protesters. MB speakers not only waged a war of words against anti-Morsi protesters, frequently described as “infidels”, but also against the media; intellectuals; the armed forces; the police; the intelligence service; and the judiciary.
However, the roots of discontent of Morsi’s opponents are much deeper. Even those who do not care about politics found reasons to be furious. For months, Egyptians have suffered from power cuts that reached six hours per day in some places and usually had an impact on water supply – previously a rare experience. For weeks, people have stood for hours in long queues to fuel their cars or suffered due to the resulting traffic congestion. Watching the president and the cabinet describing these crises as “artificial” only increased the public disapproval. Witnessing members of the MB, the FJP and its allies being disproportionately favoured employment and rapidly promoted in the public sector, especially in local administrations, also fueled a widespread anger.
There were clear signs that the then new Islamist ruling elite were waging a war against the different state institutions and seeking to control them. In a 2 hour-long speech on the 26th of June, Morsi mocked at the judiciary and named some judges as “figures” of the former regime, who seek to restore Mubarak’s rule. In the same vein, MB members and allies could not reshape their historically troubled relationship with the police. So they kept the habit of openly offending the Ministry of Interior and undermined its recovery efforts. This has slowed down the painful police reform process, following its collapse in the January revolution, and consequently affected people’s security.
Furthermore, several inconsistencies made Egyptians dislike the now former administration and gave the brotherhood many enemies. In Morsi’s speeches to the nation, the halls were filled with his supporters clapping every other sentence – a reminder of Mubarak’s speeches. While frequently speaking about the rule of law, the Egyptian president started his mandate issuing a constitutional decree, which gave him absolute powers. Moreover, he replaced the Attorney General with one of his supporters, who started investigations in selective cases and ignored others. 34 brotherhood leaders, including Morsi himself, were accused by a prosecutor in a formal investigation of cooperating with Hamas when the organisation attacked prisons and helped prisoners escape amid the January revolution. But the Attorney General, appointed by the President, never responded.
Some of the former president’s decisions were difficult to justify. Designating a member from Al Jamm’a Al Islamya – an ex-terrorist group responsible for a tourist massacre in the late 1990’s – to be the governor of Luxor, one of Egypt’s most touristic cities, raised a lot of questions and caused much opposition. In addition, there was a common feeling that the real ruler of Egypt was the MB Guidance Office and not Mohamed Morsi. Cooperation with Hamas was maintained even when it directly harmed border and national security. Speakers of the MB spoke on behalf of the president without having any official post.
For the many millions that protested against Morsi and his brotherhood, his ouster seems like a fresh start and a correction to the January revolution’s path. But Egypt’s problems are far from coming to an end. The economy is already suffering severely, and the people’s high expectations constitute a strong pressure for any coming cabinet. Politically, polarization seems to grow as many Islamists feel alienated and betrayed by the state institutions, which took the protesters’ side.
The Head of the Constitutional Court, who is now acting as the new Interim President, stated during his ceremony that the Islamist political groups cannot by any means be isolated from the political process. But the challenge for these groups is mainly internal. Islamists need to review their political practices and conceptual background. Morsi’s successors need to reconsider legitimacy as a conditional grant by the population that can be withdrawn quickly if the very basic promises are not kept. Always speaking about the ballot box as the one and only referee, they need to understand it is just a means and not an end in itself. To rule successfully, the interests of the nation must come prior to that of the brotherhood.
Still, the most prominent challenge facing the country is security. In a message to the members of Islamist political movements, the army spokesman reassured them that they will be protected as any other Egyptian citizen. However, Morsi’s allies do not necessarily feel the same towards the army. Some of the leaders of the MB and other pro-Morsi parties were arrested or banned from travelling because there were legal cases filed against them. Many of the conservative religious channels were shut down few minutes after the CIC’s speech from fear of mobilizing the mob and sparking violence. It may have reduced the possibility of a civil conflict, but it certainly did not stop violence. On the 5th of July, right after the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood gave a speech to Morsi supporters, some of them rallied to Tahrir square and violence erupted between the two sides.
Moreover, among the former president’s supporters are radical jihadist groups, some of which have been previously sentenced for participation in terrorism plots. Although some of the leaders have conducted “intellectual revisions’’, a process of presenting moderate interpretations of Islamic texts and consequently denouncing and renouncing violence, some have not. These militants are now, along with MB members, starting to lead guerilla warfare against security forces in rural Upper Egypt and Sinai.
Whether it was a coup or a revolution, the recent protests have forged a new reality in a country that is still discovering its own route to democracy. Painful as it has been for most Egyptians, the previous year was a short experience that may prove useful. On the one side, the former opposition, now in control, must work on national integration and reconciliation, unlike what they suffered during Morsi’s rule. On the other side, Islamists need to give up violence as a political tool and redefine their political approach to avoid repeating previous mistakes. How they manage to balance this act will be evident in coming months. The political game notwithstanding, provision of security and basic public service is central to their success following these dramatic events.