Three years ago, on July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military moved to take control of Egypt and overthrow Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only freely-elected president. Rather than being a reaction to our governance, a coup was long in planning for a very simple reason. Too many forces had too much to lose if Egypt’s democratic transition were to continue and they were willing to do whatever was necessary to reacquire power. They correctly understood that whatever they did, they would suffer no negative consequences as a result.
The principal actor was the military. It had seen its hold on political and economic power slowly erode over Mubarak’s 30-year reign. But there were also other local and regional allies.
Over his 30-year reign, Mubarak had entrenched a regime supported by an oppressive security apparatus and an intricate system of corrupt crony capitalism. The Mubarak tycoons made their wealth by colluding with and supporting the government, and in exchange, their shady business deals and tax evasion were allowed. One such individual settled a tax evasion case for 7 billion Egyptian pounds (at the time over USD1 billion) and found it far more profitable to spend millions to sink our administration than to pay up. (The tax evasion charges and the settlement were magically dropped after the coup). Others included the political and cultural elites under Mubarak who correctly understood that their status was dependent on the old order being established; that in a new order they would have to compete for status and prestige in a field that likely did not value them. The old security apparatus, were bent on exacting revenge and restoring their power, broken by the revolution.
Beyond the local tensions, regional forces, including Israel and some Gulf countries, felt existentially threatened by the Arab Spring and democratic governance, particularly of the Islamist type and thus moved to destabilize nascent governments not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Libya. None of these powers could be assuaged or comforted, and our attempts to engage with them at multiple levels were rebuffed at every turn.
The spectre of a coup was always hanging over the Egyptian political scene. In November 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)- appointed government sought to pre-empt any constitutional oversight over the military but proposing “supraconstitutional” principles that would give the military freedom from civilian oversight and grant the military-friendly judiciary effective veto power over parliament. When the military failed to install General Shafik as president, SCAF issued a “supplementary constitutional declaration” that gave it effective executive power and emasculated the powers of then to be President Morsi. So much so that some commentators called it a coup.
In numerous messages to the military, we made it clear that Egyptian society post 25 January had been transformed; that the military should not count on docile acceptance of a coup. Our message was clear: if the military was to mount a coup, there would be sustained opposition in the streets that would not be overcome unless the military was willing to perpetrate large scale massacres. We believed that the military would not plunge the country into chaos. We also believed that in 2013, a military coup against a democratic government would create a pariah state, and that the international community would not countenance the usurpation of the will of a people who had waited so long to gain control over their own destiny – especially if the coup was accompanied by bloodshed and brutality.
We were wrong on both counts. The military was not only willing to shed the blood of thousands of Egyptians, it was to prove quite passionate in doing so. And the international community, led by the European Union and the United States, far from being opposed to dealing with a brutal military regime that killed and imprisoned its own people, welcomed it enthusiastically as restorers of democracy.
Assessing the root causes for the coup is not an idle exercise. Egypt may yet have an opportunity for another transition to democracy. And while local actors bear immediate responsibility for the disaster that is now Egypt, the international community, by embracing a brutal and bloody military regime cannot escape part of the blame. Change will only be possible in the future if the international community takes a determined stand against the usurpation of power by the military. If violence is allowed to be the arbiter of Egypt’s fate, the only lesson young Egyptians and indeed Arabs will learn is that peaceful change is impossible.
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