Egypt’s Morsi Is Gone. Now the Danger Begins
In the late hours of July 3, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians erupted in joy, as Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi announced that President Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, had been forced from office. If that sounds strange, that’s because it is – and now, Egypt begins a new, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous phase in its political transition.
If the situation sounds like it calls for something of a conflicted appraisal, that is also because it does. One ought to be happy and glad that the majority of Egyptians had their wish fulfilled – and indeed, it was the majority of Egyptians who did not want Mr. Morsi to be president of Egypt. Never in Egyptian history has there been such a large scale mobilization – never – and their aim was clear: to apply pressure upon Mr. Morsi, so that he would eventually cease to be president.
Early on, he could have called for early presidential elections, rather than simply resign – that would probably have placated the crowds, and avoided this scenario. Here is a reason to be somewhat irritated: Mr. Morsi, in his stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise, ensured that with every passing hour, the options available to him diminished. Within a few days, it was clear: no other option was going to be acceptable to the crowds that came out onto the streets except his removal. In that regard, perhaps there is no reason to be surprised – because in the past year, Mr. Morsi has consistently missed opportunities to gain allies, and didn’t fail to miss any opportunities to alienate more from his camp.
If the military are responsible for pushing him out of power, they could never have done it without Mr. Morsi providing them with every single justification for doing it – except a legal one.
Herein lies the rub: Was this a coup, or was it not a coup? That will, invariably, become the discussion point for some time to come, precisely because of the propaganda value of the term. In reality, to call it such, without being very clear that it was done with overwhelming public support, is disingenuous. The most honest and accurate way to describe this was a popularly called-for, and thus popularly legitimate, coup.
That word, legitimacy, is also going to be something that becomes another point of contention for a while – because every part of the political spectrum in Egyptian politics wants to claim it. Mr. Morsi consistently evoked it as his bedrock: Legitimacy, derived from the fact that he won at the ballot box. Indeed, he is right – but only partially, because while he did have legal legitimacy, he lost all popular legitimacy. He must take at least some responsibility for that – for Egyptians did not suddenly decide overnight that they made the wrong choice last year when they voted for him. It came after disastrous political decisions. Moreover, he also had no executive competency – it is unfathomable to think that the Egyptian state could have continued to function with Mr. Morsi at the helm. The crowds in the street, the resignations of so much of his cabinet, and the refusal of state institutions to work with him (particularly, but not exclusively, in the past few days) made that a surety. With theoretical legal legitimacy alone, no executive can function – it has to be effective.
But beyond notions of legitimacy, there is also a more basic concern – and that is of violence and order. If Mohamed Morsi had complete legal legitimacy, but his presence caused wide-scale violence, then it is hard to argue that theoretical niceties should override the protection of life. The question is: Was that the point that Egypt was at, where his presence as president was actually causing violence? Would his continued presidency produce, in one or way or another, wide-scale violence between Egyptians on the streets? How one answers that question is crucial to looking at the legal legitimacy of this move.
Nevertheless, these questions are now theoretical. There are present and deadly dangers that face Egypt now. The partisans of Mr. Morsi are not an insignificant minority – they are probably around 15 per cent of the Egyptian population. One has to be very concerned about two forms of backlash in that regard: a backlash from them, and a backlash against them. Will partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood turn now to violence against the military? If their relative restraint continues, do they still see a future for their movement in Egypt’s political arena, considering these developments? If they do not, does that mean more radical, and violent, groups will have fertile ground from which to recruit, with even more problems for Egypt in that regard? No one knows the answer to that.
As for the backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood – it is here that Egypt’s new rulers must give very clear and uncompromising signals. In Egypt’s latest phase, a truly pluralistic political arena ought to be built, and reconciliation must begin immediately. Egypt’s new administration is openly and directly underpinned by military support, which in turn is incredibly popular with the Egyptian population. That gives it a power that, in the absence of a popularly elected parliament, is staggering, and can easily be abused – or it can be used for good purposes.
Despite the jubilation, the military intervention is not automatically a cause for unreserved celebration; it was a blow to democratic processes, even if one considers it to have been a necessary evil in this regard. But it has the opportunity to become a cause of celebration – that depends greatly on the choices this interim administration now makes. Mr. Mubarak’s failures led to him being removed; the road-map implemented by the military after his resignation blighted the transition. Mr. Morsi’s intransigence made this latest development sad, yet all but inevitable. The new administration must do better than all of them.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by The Globe and Mail on July 4, 2013. Read it here.