Developments in Egypt have caused widespread concern globally, and understandably so. Ostensibly, a democratically elected government led by President Mohamed Morsi has been dismissed by Army Chief General Abdel Fatah al Sisi, who was, ironically, the defence minister in Morsi’s cabinet. This can, therefore, be seen as a classic instance of a military coup d’etat, an extra-constitutional intervention by the army to wrest power from the legitimate authority. However, the situation is not as black and white as may appear. In order to understand what this development represents, it is important to look at the complete picture of Egypt’s transition from nearly 60 years of dictatorial rule to popular participatory government. This had to be, and is, a painful transition, which is still running its course, with its culmination not having taken place yet.
It all started with a popular uprising against long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, which the Mubarak government tried to suppress by force. Hundreds of protestors were killed in a savage crackdown, but the uprising continued to gather force, eventually forcing Mubarak to step down and hand over power to the military. The military dissolved parliament, suspended the Mubarak constitution and organised a referendum on amendments to the constitution. Despite the amendments being military-sponsored, they were approved by the electorate. This was followed by multistage parliamentary elections, and around six months later, by the presidential elections. Morsi won the election after a run-off with Ahmed Shafiq. The process was overseen by the Egyptian Army, which essentially played the role of midwife to the establishment of democracy in Egypt.
The newly-established democracy ran into trouble from the onset. The lower house of parliament, which had a majority of Muslim Brotherhood members, was dissolved by the constitutional court in June 2012, due to irreconcilable differences between the majority Brotherhood members and the members of liberal parties. Morsi then bypassed the lower house and proceeded to have a constitution drafted by a rump body consisting of only Brotherhood representatives. He also decreed greater powers to himself and declared his decree immune from judicial review. Though the constitution drafted by the Brotherhood members was approved in a nationwide referendum, its finalisation brought out the deep polarisation in Egyptian politics.
The cracks in Morsi’s government began to manifest themselves from the beginning of 2013. Protestors again assembled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February with the protests spreading to Port Said and Alexandria, resulting in dozens of deaths due to police crackdown. Fights also broke out between Muslim and Coptic Christian groups, resulting in the destruction of Christian churches and killings of minority citizens. At the same time, the Egyptian economy was in a nosedive. The Egyptian Central Bank had already declared that foreign exchange reserves had fallen to a ‘critical minimum’ and Morsi began desperate talks in May with the IMF for a bailout. Things came to a head when large-scale demonstrations, demanding Morsi’s resignation, began on June 30, with the army finally giving him a 48-hour ultimatum to put things right, and at its expiry, dismissing his government on July 3.
The situation was best analysed by an ICG Report, which states: “As Egypt teeters on the verge of a catastrophic confrontation, it is difficult to discern who has been more short-sighted: an arrogant Muslim Brotherhood that misread electoral gains for a political blank check or a reckless opposition that has appeared ready to sink the country in order to bring down the Islamists … .” In the face of such implacable polarisation in the body politic of Egypt, the army has decided to step in, once again, to perhaps ‘midwife’ another transition to a corrected and more sustainable democracy. This is Egypt’s long and arduous journey to a civilian and representative government that still has a long way to go. The army intervention is more in the nature of an intervention of a referee, when the referee holds the ball under his foot, rather than a player who runs off with the ball.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.