In the early days of the so-called “Arab Spring” in Egypt, it was already clear that the seeds of democracy which spawned it would soon be eclipsed by an Islamist power-grab by the Muslim Brotherhood. We wrote about it in GerardDirect here and here in April and May 2011, only months after the beginning of Egypt’s revolution began. Regrettably, we were right. After many broken promises to eschew power and politics, the Muslim Brotherhood took over the political process and created a state rapidly becoming an autocracy under the “one person, one vote, one time” model. The economy got worse by neglect and bad policy; brutality, particularly against women, became officially routine; and freedom of expression virtually disappeared.
Now Egyptians have made it clear that newly deposed President Mohammed Morsi’s brand of Islamic governance is not acceptable, and the Egyptian military got the message. Taking over the reins of power, General Abdel el-Sissi represented the military when he announced that Mohammed Morsi was no longer President of Egypt. He then appointed Adly Mahmoud Mansour as Egypt’s new interim president, who took the oath of office in front of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court on Thursday morning.
The opposition, who had come out into the streets in the millions, burst into noisy celebrations that lasted for days, until celebrations turned into predictable violence. With Morsi out, the parliament disbanded, the constitution suspended, a new president has been sworn in, and, for the time being, a care-taker government is in place.
Unlike a conventional coup d’etat, in which the military takes control and keeps it, the military immediately turned over the reins of power to a civilian interim government and set the wheels in motion for a new round of elections.
The blow was not just a personal one against Morsi. It is a larger blow against the imposition of an Islamist view of governance that put a strict and extreme Muslim view of life over the welfare of the people, that took a bad economy and made it much worse, and that allowed its goon squads to run rampant, punishing those who did not follow Shariah with beatings, rape, torture, and murder.
In short, from the Western point of view, the Morsi regime was even worse than that of Hosni Mubarak, whom he replaced. In addition to wanting to impose his Islamist agenda on the country, Morsi also showed his anti-West leanings that would eventually lead to turning against the US and canceling the peace treaty with Israel as soon as it was feasible to do so. From the Egyptian point of view, it was all about the economy.
Things are moving quickly now. A new interim president has been named and the military appears to be trying to move things quickly towards a new civilian government, a new constitution, and new elections. But the violence on the street has escalated rapidly as well, and the death toll is rising alarmingly, as is the nature of the violence itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood, first stunned, is now giving voice to its anger. The violent confrontation between the pro-Morsi demonstrators has already resulted in the deaths of scores of Egyptians. Devoted members of the Brotherhood have vowed to die for the deposed President and for Islam, and the anti-Morsi factions who had been celebrating the fall of the Morsi government, are now facing angry mobs of pro-Morsi Islamists who have vowed to die for their cause.
Medium range issues will involve setting up new elections; a re-examination of the Egyptian constitution that was first written by the Egyptian Parliament (now disbanded) and then revised by Morsi himself to give him more discretionary power; and finally the establishment of a new government. What form that government will take depends on how much power the Muslim Brotherhood can reclaim, either in the electoral process or in the streets. Alternatively, much will also depend on how organized the opposition, which failed to sufficiently organize its base prior to the last election, can get. As the millions on each side organize their positions, Egypt may well find itself devolving into civil war.
The long term consequences of the fall of Morsi’s government could be significant, and while they raise some semblance of hope in the future of the Middle East, they also raise deep concern. The ‘bloodless’ coup that took place in Egypt is unprecedented in the Middle East, and although the violence today may look bad, it could get a great deal worse. One has only to look at Syria for what it could become. These are still early hours in what may ultimately be a long and bloody conflict.
In light of the violence permeating the region in Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, the relatively non-violent transition that brought down Morsi’s government has already begun to turn extremely ugly. The Muslim Brotherhood is still the best organized of all the political and religious groups in Egypt, and if their anger is allowed to fester and escalate in the streets, the eruption may lead to a dangerously violent and bloody civil war.
An alliance of Islamist parties and movements, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who only a few days ago called for “peaceful protests” to denounce the military’s overthrow of their Islamist president, today they called for violent intifada. The time after Friday prayers in Egypt’s major cities, when religions Muslims emerged from the mosques with the fiery sermons of angry Imams still ringing in their ears, triggered a massive response as hoards of Muslims poured out of the mosques and into the streets.
The next few months will be both dangerous and critical. Many questions have yet to be answered: How will the process unfold and will violence overtake the ability of the military to control it? Today the White House announced that US aid to Egypt will continue unabated. Who will monitor it and who will control it? And who will take possession of the 20 F-16s and the 200 Abrams tanks that were pledged and some of which have already been delivered? Will the peace treaty with Israel be upheld? Will a new government try to rebuild relations with its partners in stark contrast to Morsi’s ambiguous policies? ?
President Obama miscalculated the situation from the beginning. While hesitating in many other areas of foreign policy, and despite the reported protests of the State Department, he rushed to embrace Morsi after the Egyptian election, and has provided his government with billions of US dollars, F-16s, and Abrams tanks. Why the supposed leader of the free world would support a reactionary Islamist leader, in what was supposed to be a bid for democracy in Egypt, is still a puzzle, but does not bode well for future relations with the next Egyptian government.
Now that Morsi is out, Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place. But instead of playing a leadership role and taking a strong position on the events in Egypt, he is doing what he always does – waffling, prevaricating, and hesitating to take a any position at all. Saying only that he was “deeply concerned” and urging the Egyptian military to “return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible”, he hedged his bets, perhaps on the chance that Morsi might somehow miraculously be returned to power. Now he has changed his message again, ensuring that the flow of US dollars to Egypt will continue, regardless of who is in power. But this is against US law. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree.”
In short, the President is taking a position that runs counter to accepted principles of US law, and once again he looks weak and unable to make a decision on the appropriate policy. As usual, he is leading from behind, waiting perhaps for a flash of insight that will enable him to emerge with dignity and without damage.
Morsi also miscalculated, only he misjudged the Egyptian people themselves. He overestimated his own power, and underestimated the power of those who did not want his idea of an Islamist government that tyrannized, humbled, and humiliated them, or his bad economic policies that kept them even more impoverished than before.
In an article that appeared in GerardDirect immediately after the elections, we wrote that sources close to the Election Council had reported that Brotherhood had threatened violent demonstrations by millions of their followers if Morsi lost the election. According to our source, the threat caused the Council to change the the actual vote tally, giving the higher, winning number to Morsi, although he had actually lost. Presumably this was done in order to avoid further violence and chaos in the streets. It may also explain the long, rambling speech that the head of the Council gave as he waited for a decision.
Although many things remain to be seen before a clear picture emerges about Egypt’s future, one thing is very clear. The Muslim Brotherhood has invested much in Egypt’s revolution, and will not now give up easily without a very great struggle. Their view of Egypt as an Islamist state governed under Shariah law, leading the Muslim world in the conquest of the West, is unshakeable. The popular uprising that resulted in the events of this week will not drive them from the field. It will only intensify their zeal and determination. The battle ahead is likely to get much worse before it begins to get better.