Around midnight in Cairo the night of Tuesday, July 2, millions of people in Egypt awaited the President of the Republic, Mohammad Morsi, to respond to the 48-hour ultimatum delivered by the country's military on Monday: resolve your differences with the protestors or we will do it for you. With the deadline fast approaching, and due to hit at 4:30 p.m. local time the next day, Morsi rejected the challenge by the military in a tweet. Then, he came on television and delivered what was the most important speech in not just his life but in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood movement he represents. And it was a spectacular failure. While not as long-winded as the two-and-a-half hour speech he had given just days earlier -- akin to a State of the Union -- it was just as hollow. His near constant use of the word "legitimacy" began to elicit uncontrollable laugher in many corners (with the usage count of the word at around 75 in the speech). With millions of Egyptians on the streets across the country -- some in support of him but many, if not most, in opposition -- and the military's ultimatum in the background, Morsi had seemingly put the final nail in his own coffin.
Just 30 months after the ousting of the dictator for the past 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, street protests in Egypt culminated on Wednesday night in a coup d'etat, effectively overturning the 14 democratic elections since February 11, 2011 (the total voting cycles for the parliament, presidency and constitution). Indeed, it was broader than a coup d'etat, as the Tamarod (rebellion) movement that brought millions of people to the streets was a grassroots uprising that gathered millions of signatures from ordinary Egyptians, and more significantly, managed to coalesce a previously disparate and dispirited opposition. Additionally, deposed President Mohammad Morsi had governed incompetently and non-inclusively, which seemingly left the invitation open to change. Yet, what transpired this week, especially in the final sequence of events, could be the initial salvo of a counter-revolution 2.0, potentially endangering the process of democratization in Egypt for years to come.
While things seemingly have not changed that much in Egypt, and in many ways have gotten worse, a lot has transpired. Following the departure of Mubarak and his gang from the scene, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took charge of managing the country's affairs. It took nearly a year to hold parliamentary elections. When it did happen, in late 2011-early 2012 the Brotherhood's party (the Freedom & Justice Party or FJP) took 38 percent of the vote, followed closely by the more conservative Salafist party, Al Nour, which took 28 percent. Given that this body would determine the fate of the new constitution (and the assembly to draft it), the fact that it was dominated by "Islamists" already meant the new era of Egypt was handed a poisoned chalice in the eyes of many. Six months later, in June 2012, the presidential elections saw a run-off between a former Prime Minister but tainted "remnant" of the old Mubarak regime, Ahmed Shafiq, and Mohammed Morsi (representing the Muslim Brotherhood). Morsi won, and with the backing of protests in the famed Tahrir Square, also managed to wrest plenty of executive authority from SCAF. Within two months, Morsi also seemed to assert civilian control over the military, with a shuffling of key positions in the defense establishment.
Then on November 22, 2012, with full executive powers, and the parliament in limbo (due to pending court cases), Morsi assumed essentially legislative powers and declared himself immune from judicial oversight until a new constitution was formed. In essence that gave birth to the current movement (well at least the National Salvation Front that formed two days later and was a hodge-podge of opposition groups, including figures such as Mohamed El Baradei) which culminated in Morsi's removal from office this week. Morsi and the FJP then ham-fisted a constitution through a referendum, which garnered the support of 64 percent of the voting public. However, the process was not led by consensus and Morsi appeared to be increasingly marginalizing the judiciary, which many viewed as being too linked to the old regime, especially given that many senior judges were appointed by Hosni Mubarak (the judges had their own democracy movement in 2006 so not a unified group by any means). Yet for many in the opposition, the judiciary was still a check against Morsi and the Brotherhood's power. And there were also complaints about the ikhwanization of the state; given what transpired this week, this appeared not to have been the case.
Nevertheless, the concentration of power by the Brotherhood and its non-inclusive method of governance as described above, could have overcome minor challenges from the opposition, if Morsi had enacted policies that improved the lives of everyday people. His approval rating had begun to drop dramatically, falling to 28 percent of the public just weeks before his overthrow. This was mainly due to the inability of the government to turnaround the economy, with 25 percent of Egyptians below the poverty line, unemployment on the rise, and the country's fiscal health on the decline. Meanwhile, his approach to foreign policy of aligning with the U.S., engaging with Iran, partnering with Qatar, and leading the charge on Syria, did little to assuage a frustrated public waiting for change at home in their daily lives that had yet to materialize. And sectarian clashes that mainly killed Shiites and Christians tarnished the impartial role the president was assumed to play, given that he was close to figures that were prone to incitement.
In the backdrop of all of this, the Tamarod movement, which started just several months ago (in April), began to tap into the widespread anger and frustration. Gone was the gloss of a technocratic 'Islamist' party -- a la the AKP in Turkey, who incidentally are having their own issues -- replaced instead by the reality of the FJP in Egypt. And gone also was the mystique of a survivalist Brotherhood that was the David against the Goliath of the last half century; the Brotherhood was now the Goliath, and seemingly squandering the power that it had accumulated. The Tamarod activists claimed to have gathered 22 million signatures, in a country of 93 million people, which seems patently ridiculous for many demographic/logistical reasons (in the course of just two months). Nevertheless, their demands were clear, and principally centered on early presidential elections (Morsi had served one of a four-year term). They were supported by umbrella opposition groups such as the National Salvation Front, April 6 Movement, and others, and with their deadline of June 30 for Morsi to respond coming fast, thousands and then millions began to fill Egypt's squares (some as noted in support of Morsi).
By Wednesday, just prior to the removal of Morsi from power, several implications of what was transpiring were already clear. Firstly, the Tamarod movement, and subsequent mobilization demonstrated that there could be an organized opposition to Islamists in the 'new' Arab world, and that this secular alternative could mobilize numbers. This could have far-reaching consequences in other countries such as Tunisia, where Islamists like the Nahda Party hold sway, as well as eventually (in the longer-term) in autocratic countries where often the only strong opposition movements are bogeyman Islamists movements. Secondly, Morsi's reign had as noted above, dulled -- as power does to any party -- the shine of the Brotherhood. It has been noted, for example that the clashes that led to the separation of the West Bank & Gaza Strip, and undermined the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, only emboldened Hamas instead of forcing the movement into the pubic accountability spotlight.
Of course, in the euphoria of what the opposition was about to gain, the darkness just around the corner might have seemed far away. With millions on the street, and the military indicating a willingness to force itself on the scene as the arbitrator, Morsi offered a new constitutional process, a unity government of technocrats, and an accelerated schedule of new parliamentary elections but it was too little too late it seemed for the street, especially with the military now backing the activists' play. And so instead of a negotiated agreement with President Morsi, or a legal process through the courts, or any other process through civilian authorities, it was the military that removed Morsi from power. The crowds in Tahrir Square cheered but the supporters of the deposed President, in Nasr City (also in Cairo), jeered. In a carefully choreographed display, the civil secular state -- with an associated roadmap essentially a reset of the revolutionary period -- was re-established by three initial speeches: first by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, head of the armed forces (appointed by Morsi), second by the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, and third by the Coptic Pope. Short statements followed from a range of opposition figures, including a representative of Tamarod and El Baradei and the conservative Nour Party.
If you are an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, this was indeed a victory. And given the direction that Egypt was going, if you are an Egyptian, you can only hope that this could lead to a more positive future. Whatever the case, however, the military re-takeover appears to also be a re-launch of the counter-revolution. The autocratic powers that be in the region were effusive and immediate in their praise of the military and the coup. More worryingly, was the systematic campaign of arrests that already started to unfold late into the night of Muslim Brotherhood activists, leaders, affiliated journalists, and yes even Mohammad Morsi. The military is looking not just to referee the playing field but to define the playing field and the players allowed on it. That's not democracy. It may be that in the modern Arab world the demographics are such that the debate is about choosing between liberalism and democracy, but isn't that the false choice of the last 40-50 years offered by autocratic rulers in the Arab world? And there is nothing 'rosy' about liberal autocracy versus religious autocracy in this region. In fact, if anything, liberal/secular authoritarianism has been the bane of decay in modern Arab history: the Baath parties in Iraq and Syria, Ben Ali's Tunis, Mubarak's Egypt, and the list goes on.
Yet, unless the Egyptian military is kept in check, it will likely go down the path it knows best and one that it has followed since 1952, which is to systematically crush dissent and marginalise and exclude the Muslim Brotherhood. All indications today point to a proclivity to re-instate this exclusion, which could lead to an Algeria scenario of the 1990s, albeit in a different form, of course. Paradoxically, as this new Pandora's Box is opened, the only hope to keep the military in check is the very street and youth who demanded its removal from the scene, and then demanded it to come back to its role as guarantor of the state. Hopefully the tamarod or rebellion, will keep that spirit, now that they have been given a share of the power.