Morsi’s Overthrow: All Sides Must Now Be Held to Account

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Morsi’s Overthrow: All Sides Must Now Be Held to Account

The Muslim Brotherhood can’t escape blame for its ousting from power and Egypt’s subsequent polarisation. If the international community can do anything, it is to persuade all political actors to refrain from violence and respect civil rights.

Why the Muslim Brotherhood Lost its Mandate

Last month, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history. Today, he is being held by the Egyptian military after a civilian, and overwhelmingly popular, uprising that demanded his resignation. Many outside Egypt are puzzled why the popular impulse to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship would now overwhelmingly support the military in this action. The answers lie in the aftermath of the uprising in 2011.

While Mubarak was removed, his party was dissolved, with few officials put on trial. But the regime they built, and the networks they cultivated largely remained intact, if bruised, for about a year. Separate from that was the military, the popularity of which has been consistent from then until now: well over 80% at the worst of times, and over 90% at its best.

In terms of grassroots popularity, the revolutionaries and non-Islamist political parties were on the other end of the spectrum. The Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi political parties had small, but powerful bases which they managed to turn into impressive voting shares in the parliamentary elections of 2011.

The following year, however, saw a shift with old pro-Mubarak networks choosing to back Ahmad Shafiq in the presidential elections. He lost, coming second, owing to the support that pro-revolutionary and non-Islamist forces gave to Mohammed Morsi – but it was clear the forces behind Mubarak’s last Prime Minister still had influence.

When Morsi became president, old balances of power remained. Islamists of the Brotherhood and Salafi parties had lost some of their popularity (as could be seen in diminishing, while still victorious, vote shares, when parliamentary and presidential votes are compared). The military remained extremely popular; the revolutionary and non-Islamist forces stayed significant, but with far less popularity than their competitors in the Brotherhood/Salafi camps; and Mubarakite networks were beginning to regroup.

All this meant that Morsi had a very tenuous mandate in terms of popular support and a very feeble hold on power.  Revolutionaries understandably wanted him to build a revolutionary consensus, on the basis that it was the revolution that swept him to power. But Morsi had even compelling self-serving reasons to broaden his power base. To simply have enough power to engage in any kind reform, he would have to try to co-opt enough parts of the Mubarakite network within the state, and develop alliances with non-Mubarakite forces.

Instead, Morsi proceeded to weaken his power further. Through a series of incompetent political decisions and blunt attempts at power grabs, he provoked increasing animosity from his enemies, and turned possible allies into foes. Six months into his presidency, Morsi completely depleted what political capital he had beyond the Islamist camp, with extra-judicial decrees and a botched constitutional process.

The damage to his political capital was then amplified by his lack of popular appeal. Politically motivated court cases against opponents, the arrest of activists, and the toleration of incitement to violence only worsened Morsi’s position. Grassroots dissatisfaction aimed at Morsi increased dramatically as economic woes rapidly increased, in no small part due to Morsi’s inability to appoint competent ministers with suitable economic policies. There was no impeachment process that could be implemented, and the population began to prefer even a return to military rule. Morsi had legal legitimacy to continue for the duration of his term – but political legitimacy disappeared, and popular legitimacy was fast diminishing.

The first to call for early presidential elections was actually a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, who opposed any military intervention in political life. Increasingly, there were calls for the formation of a technocratic national salvation government that would deal with the economy, and engage on the constitution. This was the only way Morsi could hope to remain in power with such an array of popular dissent.

Early accounts of the ‘Tamarod’ campaign against Morsi suggest it began as an organic call for change, agitating for early presidential elections on the anniversary of Morsi’s election on 30 June. As the campaign continued, non-Brotherhood members of the political elite, from all parts of the political spectrum (including supporters of the former regime) and their allies, supported Tamarod’s call as a common cause.

Why the Military Intervened

All the way up to 30 June, Morsi had the ability to defuse the situation; instead, he increased the stakes. His progressively belligerent rhetoric and actions towards his opponents, culminated in a series of threats made in a two and a half hour speech on 27 June (particularly with regards to the ‘cleansing of the media’). A concerned military urged Morsi as early as 23 June to find an accommodation with his political opponents – if not earlier. It knew that if order began to break down as it did during the initial 25 January uprising, it would be the military that would be called upon by the crowds to intervene.

The military was probably taken by surprise by the size of the crowds on the 30 June: whose numbers far outstripped the entire 25 January 2011 protests. It would have been difficult to control inevitable violence if those tens of millions around the country had interacted with Morsi supporters; particularly as arms were certainly rife in the country. On the other hand, intervening would be risky, and would put it at loggerheads with a well-organised Muslim Brotherhood. The military hoped the issuing of a 48-hour ultimatum would force Morsi to compromise before things proceeded much further: the options including a national salvation government with Morsi as its head, the calling for early presidential elections, a referendum on his rule, and his resignation.

True to form, however, Morsi refused to compromise until the last day. Indeed, even after the crowds were substantial, Morsi further antagonised the population with yet another bellicose speech. Both he and the military then engaged in a high-risk brinkmanship in which both sides felt they had the popular mandate to prevail. As the days continued, fewer options were left that would satisfy the crowds. Morsi would not resign, and on  3 of July, it is hard to see what else would have defused the crisis.

>Morsi’s constitution six months earlier had protected the military’s interests, and the military had no desire to engage in governance again. On the other hand, widespread instability would mean their interests would be jeopardised. Considering the widespread confidence in the armed forces and the popular opposition to Morsi, the military felt confident the population would back it.

The Brotherhood and Morsi calculated they had legal legitimacy and sufficient popular support. To them, the military was not acting out of reluctance, but as part of a conspiracy to re-engage Egyptian governance, in collaboration with Mubarak holdovers, in order to ensure that the Brotherhood would revert to a criminalised position.

Regardless of whether those accusations are true or not, the Brotherhood lost out to the military on two crucial factors: political legitimacy and popular support.

The Contested Transition

In the aftermath of the military takeover, predictably supported by the majority of the population, vitriol was fomented by pro-Morsi figures, often on satellite television. This ensured that opposition towards the Brotherhood only intensified. Violent clashes ensued, as did arrest warrants issued for scores of Brotherhood personnel, and the shuttering of several television channels, including Al-Jazeera’s Egypt service. State action against these channels took place with some, but insufficient, justification as some of those stations had been guilty of incitement for months, and were intensifying. On the other side, popular opinion against the Brotherhood was also aggravated by non-Islamist media that increasingly depicted Morsi supporters as terrorists (with some, but insufficient, justification).

As a result, the pro-Morsi camp is convinced that if it backs down, its future would be one of persecution. Equally, it is convinced that refusal to call off its own protests will lead the military to provoke Morsi supporters into a wide-scale confrontation. The latter scenario is probably incorrect, as the military does not relish this option – but the first scenario is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer this standoff remains, the more likely public opinion would back a forced subjugation of the Morsi camp. The Brotherhood is essentially playing poker – but with useless cards in a game that can be overturned at any time. The Morsi camp has few allies, and is betting on international pressure – almost definitely a severe miscalculation.

The Brotherhood, as well as Egypt, stands at a very critical juncture in the country’s transition. The forces that impartially advocate the rule of law, and civil rights are confined to a small, but stubborn, human rights community.  They need to be strengthened, for the sake of Egyptian democracy, even though they also have little leverage at this point. Already, the situation has deteriorated. The state used excessive force in trying to clear a pro-Morsi protest in front of a Republican Guard facility: after protesters resisted with reportedly low-level weaponry, dozens died, armed and otherwise. The civil rights community is leading a campaign for an independent inquiry, the results of which are unlikely to be entirely satisfactory. Additionally, pro-Morsi forces have killed civilians across the country, leading to horrific scenes that are increasingly sectarian in nature.

The British government has good links with the Brotherhood, and Egypt’s military, as well as the camps that are now engaging with the military to construct an interim government. Those links must be utilised comprehensively to ensure the Brotherhood does not pursue a course that could lead to a violent crackdown, and to encourage the authorities to pursue a national reconciliation process that establishes a pluralistic political arena where a peaceful Brotherhood remains. To give Egypt a fresh start, that process ought to go beyond the past year, and go much further back.

In the past year, the feeling – rightly or wrongly – among much of the non-Islamist Egyptian intelligentsia has been that the British government has been soft on the Muslim Brotherhood’s abuses of democratic norms. The British government has the opportunity at this juncture to be clear about its commitment to civil rights above all else – regardless of who happens to win at the ballot box, or who holds the balance of power. That applies to all forces: the Muslim Brotherhood, their political opponents, and the military. As the largest single investor in Egypt, the UK has a certain amount of leverage, and ought to use it to encourage a reconciliation process for all sides. A pluralistic political system with vibrant civil society institutions was increasingly unlikely under Morsi, and never could have been a reality under Mubarak, but is still a prize worth fighting for in Egypt’s future.

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 RUSI on July 15, 2013. Read it here.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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