IS EGYPT GOING BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Canberra, 4 August 2013
Two-And-a-half years after ‘people power’ removed President Hosni Mubarak from power, rejecting a security-dominated autocracy that had ruled Egypt ever since the Nasser-led coup that ended the rule of King Farouk in 1952, Egypt is back to the starting point. In the past two years Egypt has essentially undergone three revolutions—the first, removal of Mubarak by a combination of the Egyptian people and an acquiescent military and the installation of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi as the de factohead of government; the second, a controversial election that could be termed a revolution, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood party led by Mohamed Morsi to power; and the third, a revolution to end the second revolution brought about once again by a combination of the military and the people, which ousted Morsi and his Brotherhood from power. There is a palpable irony in this cycle.
The first revolution took place because the Egyptians, particularly the youth, felt very strongly that under the Mubarak regime, they would never be able to realise their full potential or be empowered. The second ‘electoral’ revolution was the result of the ineptitude of the generals to rule that made even many liberal Egyptians to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood against the candidature of a Mubarak-era general. The third, was spawned within a year of Morsi coming to power because of his overt attempts at consolidating the Brotherhood’s grip on power, autocratic and non-inclusive style of functioning and more importantly the complete failure to stem the economic collapse of the nation. This time around, the military has been smarter than the first time and has installed the chief justice as interim President.
A Historical Precedent?
In 1918, Egyptian nationalists led by Saad Zaghloul wanted to present a case for Egyptian independence at the Versailles Conference at the end of World War I. They proved their legitimacy and overwhelming support of the people by having hundreds of thousands of individually signed statements from the people of Egypt giving them the authority to represent Egypt—a clear democratic process. The British however, ignored this mandate and reacted by exiling Saad Zaghloul and other senior leaders to Malta. Here the similarities start—the public took to the streets, immediately followed by widespread civil disobedience. The British had to back down and bring back Zaghloul and the other leaders back. In 1922, Egypt’s independence was recognised and it continued to be governed by a liberal multi-party democracy for the next 30 years.     
What does this full circle situation indicate? At the fundamental level it is a clear message from the majority Egyptians that: they want a competent government that can bring order back to the country and control the rising crime rate; they want steps initiated to stop the economic death spiral; they want a government that can assure them their energy requirements; and they want employment. In a very fundamental way these are not unreasonable demands. Instead of dealing with these immediate issues Morsi concentrated on fostering the Muslim Brotherhood to make it an entrenched political force in Egypt to the exclusion of all others. The fact that all government appointments were confined to the Muslim Brotherhood made the minorities more than nervous. Morsi pursued a majoritarian interpretation of the concept of democracy and did not even attempt to introduce any inclusive policies to cater for the secular sections of the society, some of whom had even voted for him. Further, he overreached in trying to decapitate the army, cripple the judiciary and muffle the media—the three sectors that he felt were opposed to his ultimate agenda of creating an Islamic state. Instead of being celebrated as the first democratically elected President of Egypt, Morsi is likely to go down in history as the failed leader who betrayed the achievements of the peoples revolution and the catalyst who brought the military back in favour. 
In this continuum of revolutions there is a military aspect that must also be analysed. The ouster of Mubarak in 2011 has been seen by some analysts as a revolt against the military establishment. This is fundamentally incorrect. The military has been ingrained in the consciousness of the people as their protector; ever since the Nasserite coup of 1952 (the Free Officers revolt against King Farouk and the British proxy rule). The 2011 revolution could be better understood as a military-aided opposition to Mubarak’s nepotistic rule and the internal security apparatus that he had created over a 30-year rule. The ‘election’ revolution wherein the Muslim Brotherhood came to power was permitted by the military, albeit reluctantly, because of two reasons. One, although the military is predominantly secular, they were aware that a significant proportion of the population of 83 million had conservative religious roots and were profoundly pious—whether Muslim or Christian. Therefore, it would have been foolhardy to oppose the mandate that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win in an election. Two, after ruling the country for nearly 18 months after the fall of Mubarak, the military was shrewd enough to realise the economic and social morass that was in evidence and therefore let Morsi take power knowing fully well that he would fail to improve the situation through political inexperience. His one-year rule was seen more as a tolerable period and time enough for the Muslim Brotherhood to be exposed as serious power grabbers and not truly democratic in their dealings. The third revolution could not have taken place without the tacit approval of the military; and the military played its cards very astutely by removing Morsi and immediately installing the judiciary to rule the nation. However, the military remains the real power behind the throne!
At least for the middle-term, the military is entrenched in the political and economic system of Egypt. The generals will continue to mould Egypt to align with their perception of what a ‘democratic’ nation should be like. This brings to the fore the role of the military forces—not only in Egypt, but in the broader Middle East region. Are they king-makers or supporters of democracy? Will they be able to transcend the perpetuation of self-interest for the greater good of the nation? The answers are complex, conditional and contextual. 
Coup, Revolution, Regime Change—are they the same?
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
Shakespeare.
Ever since the event took place, journalists have been debating whether the ouster of President Morsi was a coup, a revolution or just a regime change dictated by circumstances. There are supporters and opponents of each of these classifications, but the classic textbook definitions of any of the three cannot be applied to the Egyptian situation. Since both coups and revolutions are unconstitutional means of regime change, especially in a democracy, can they be considered the same? Or is the concept of a regime change more acceptable? The fact is that Morsi’s removal has the characteristics of a combination of coup and revolution brought about by the people’s desire for a regime change. However, the question still remains—was the action legitimate? Although it was the military that acted, this was not a coup d’etat in the traditional manner; neither was it a revolution in the conventional sense. This was a military intervention aimed at defusing a crisis and not a power grab, as evidenced by the setting up of a civilian government almost immediately. While there is no doubt as to the power behind the scenes, it is to be hoped that the military will not need to exercise its power other than in terms of a deterrent stance to calm would be ‘trouble-makers’. 
The fundamental reason for the crisis to start and gather momentum till its crystallisation on 3 June 2013, is actually a less than robust understanding of what constitutes democratic legitimacy and a mis-interpretation of this rather complex concept by all concerned—Morsi, his opponents and the military. Democratic legitimacy is defined not purely by electoral victory—as both Morsi and Erdogan in Turkey seem to believe—but by the recognition of that victory by those who voted against the winning candidate. The mass protests by the people clearly indicated that Morsi had lost that legitimacy. However, can even a people-assisted removal of the President by the military be considered to have sufficient legitimacy? Perhaps, a part of an interview conducted by Ismail Serageldin, a Middle Eastern journalist, would provide an understandable explanation although it does not constitute a clear answer to the question. He reports (in an article dated 11 June 2013) that he was talking to a demonstrator and asked him what his opinion was regarding the fact that Morsi was a legitimately elected democratic President who was removed from power before finishing his term. The demonstrator is reported to have replied, ‘So I bought a tin of tuna. I opened it and the tuna was rotten. Do you think I should eat it?’ This is profound folk wisdom.  However, Egypt will long be plagued by the precedent set by this intervention and the concept of democratic legitimacy will continue to be interpreted in different ways. Rather than debating the nuances and niceties of relieving Morsi of his charge, it is more important to ask and obtain a tangible answer to the question—are the people of Egypt going to achieve their aspirations in the next iteration of democracy in the country? There is no assurance of this and the events that have followed the removal of Morsi do not instil the confidence necessary to believe that the future will be better than the past.
While this author personally has no issue with the intervention of the military and believes that what happened in Egypt was not a coup but a people-willed regime change, there is one factor that must be mentioned for the sake of analytical balance. In a democracy, people are definitely the source of authority. However, this authority is conditional. If a democratic process has been undertaken to the satisfaction of the people, then the people also must thereafter adhere to the rules and regulations that govern a democracy. If there is a sudden realisation that the wrong candidate (the ‘rotten can of tuna’) has been elected, that person should only be removed through a democratic process. This is not what happened in Egypt.   
The Regional Implications
Almost immediately on the removal of Morsi the dividing line in the Middle East, until now only vaguely seen beneath the surface, became very visible. The Saudis and the Syrians welcomed it while the Turks condemned the military takeover. This alignment is understandable: for Syria, Morsi was an enemy and any replacement is likely to provide the Assad regime with the hope of things becoming better; in Turkey, where military interventions have been part of the political landscape for its entire modern history, there is trepidation within the AKP leadership that they could also face the same fate, although it is highly unlikely. The ambivalent nature of the responses from the United States and the European Union further adds to this overall discomfiture. The region now watches, and wonders whether the Muslim Brotherhood will become further radicalised or whether the Salafists, a far more orthodox group, perhaps even less prepared than the brotherhood to assume the mantle of rulership will win the next election. Either of these developments will make the situation even more precarious.
In a broader manner, most analysts agree that the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and pro-Morsi supporters by the security forces and the clashes between the pro and anti Morsi forces have resulted in fatalities believed to be in the hundred(s). This has resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood openly calling for a full-fledged uprising against the army and the military backed interim government. If the security situation is not contained immediately, and the Muslim Brotherhood persuaded to re-enter the political arena, civil war is inevitable.  The unfortunate part is that such a war will degenerate into a prolonged Islamic insurgency wherein the four primary reasons for the people to have wanted Morsi to be removed—law and order, economy, employment and inclusiveness—will become the first casualties. Time is of the essence in containing this situation.
The example of a democratic government being toppled by the military, albeit with popular support, could lead Islamist parties to conclude that the democratic process is not likely to tolerate electoral victories of parties of their hue. The result could be that they would revert to being authoritarian and tend to gather political power through the use of violence. More importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood now sees itself as being pushed against the wall not only in Egypt, but in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, and Syria, which could make them more prone to initiating illogical and radical actions that would culminate in violence of one kind or the other. With Qatar and Turkey, both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood now seemingly hesitant to offer unconditional support, the Brotherhood faces difficult times ahead, that too with a diminished status. A large part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s assiduously built reputation and influence has been squandered by the ineptitude of its first attempt at democratic governance.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that has been the de facto rulers of the besieged Gaza strip since 2007 and an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood has been the biggest regional loser in the aftermath of Morsi’s removal. Mubarak had supported the Palestine National Authority (PNA) when Hamas had taken control of Gaza from PNA officials. Morsi on the other hand had been more supportive and played a leading role in brokering a peace-deal between Israel and Hamas in the 2012 conflict, becoming the guarantor of the deal for the first time ever. Hamas interpreted the Arab Spring as a precursor of things to come, joining an informal coalition of Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, while rejecting its old allies—Iran and Syria. The fall of Morsi has taken the wind out of Hamas’s sail. Further, they now stand accused of orchestrating a number of illegal activities and responsible for the lawlessness that is prevailing in the Sinai. The new Egyptian leadership has ostracised Hamas and their relationship with both Turkey and Qatar are at a nadir. While Hamas remains a significant force in the Palestine scene, their reversal of fortunes in the Middle East has been quick and painful.      
What is happening in Egypt should be seen as a blue print of the future for the nations of the region, particularly for the Islamists who have been in the forefront of the so-called Arab Spring. The media has been busy debating the demise of the Arab Spring. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s Arab population had been viewed as the great hope for democracy in the region. It also wielded enormous clout because of its lead role in the Arab cultural, economic and political development. The brief Morsi sojourn has depleted this strength. However, other centres of influence have sprung up to take up the slack, although these centres have different agendas. Another factor to keep in mind is that democracy is not over, by a large margin, in Egypt. Extremely imprudent and reckless things have been done in its name—but the Arab Spring is still not dead. Having said that, the author is compelled to add that although the altruistic ideal of the Arab Spring has been to provide social justice, democracy and equality for all, so far it seems to be only about hate and violence. There has not been any visible initiatives towards rebuilding the nation in any of the countries that have so far been engulfed. The compulsion to fight the ‘other’, irrespective of the damage to the nation is far too apparent!   
What Next?
Ever since Mubarak’s overthrow, four disparate groups have been jockeying for ascendancy, power and legitimacy—the military, the Islamists that include the Muslim Brotherhood and other even more conservative groups, the old politico-economic and social groups that thrived under Mubarak’s rule, and the ‘revolutionaries’. Each of these groups has different concepts of legitimacy and use different tools to further their individual interests. The mix is interesting. Both the times that a ruling President was overthrown, the revolutionaries took the initiative, but in both cases they were unable to influence subsequent developments. The actual struggle is between the military and the Islamists, with the old establishment teaming up with the military. Legitimacy seems to be primary requirement for any of these groups to be considered the predominant one; and in Egypt at the current juncture legitimacy is implicitly based on competence. Here lies a conundrum. The Islamists have proven to be incompetent (after all they have no experience in ruling or the understanding of the nuances of realpolitik) and worse, have been accused of corruption and criminality; while the old establishment is, at least for now being considered liberals. Further, at the current juncture the people have been content to hand over power back to the military, which had been discredited only about 18 months ago. This volte-face only shows the disillusionment of the general public with the Muslim Brotherhood, and should not be thought to be indicative of a renewed faith in the ability of the military to ease the pain of the country. A sort of default choice of the lesser evil!
Egypt remains polarised, on the verge of a civil war, with spreading violence that is gradually, but surely, diminishing the chances of reconciliation. The failure of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government to run its full term will have one definitive fallout—they will be more willing to believe that working within the system is not viable and in turn there is a distinct possibility of their becoming more radicalised. The challenge for the interim government is to provide the people with a responsible and democratic system of government that ensures stability and secularism but the prevailing restive atmosphere will be a hindrance to rapid progress. Even though its popularity has been restored, there is also the ever present question of how the military will react if there is another large flare up of violence. The onus of reconciliation is on the interim government, which must be cognisant of the fact that any political process that excludes the Islamic parties will not be successful. Egypt would do well to look at the precedence of Algeria, where the military removed an elected government because it was thought to be too ‘Islamic’. What followed was 12 years of civil war that left more than 200,000 people dead and a once thriving economy in ruins.
The interim government is starting to try to steer the nation towards normalcy and has created a transition plan, or road map, for the immediate future. It has detailed 10 legal and constitutional experts to draft changes to the constitution in the next 30 days; thereafter 50 people from across the society will consider the amendments; and the final draft will be put to a referendum. Further, it promises Parliamentary elections in early 2014 to be followed by a Presidential election at a later date, yet to be announced. The success of this plan will depend on the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, something that so far has no guarantee of happening. Currently a sort of stand-off seems to be in place between two antagonistic camps, both claiming to be the defender of democracy. Any further mobilisation and confrontation will delay the transition to an inclusive democracy.
If the current stand-off can be resolved, if the Islamist parties continue to want to participate in the political process, if the military permits them to come back into mainstream politics, and if the other institutions of government do not force the military into a rigid stance instead of assuming a flexible posture, then it is possible that a ‘directed democracy’ will emerge—a democracy that is guided by the military—with the possibility that in a gradual manner the civilian control over the military will increase over the years. Success depends on the ability of whoever wins elections to abandon majority democracy and to usher in pluralism and inclusiveness through dialogue not intervention. Hope based on far too many ifs and buts!
The leadership that comes to power after this hiatus would do well to remember the wise words of Sant (saint) Kabir of India who said, ‘Nindak niyare rakhiye aangan kuti chawi; bin paani sabun bina nirmal kare subhaiy.’ (Translated as, ‘Keep the critics close to you as without any effort they can cleanse your thoughts.’)    
Conclusion
The transition from well-entrenched autocracy to a transparent democracy is a complicated and mostly long-drawn process. The presence of an activist and intervention-prone military makes this process even more complex. There are other unresolved issues that come with this transition. Should the more extremist parties be left (or kept) out of the electoral process? If they are, what is the legitimacy of the elections and subsequently, the elected government? What is the legitimacy of large scale demonstrations that threaten the functioning of a legally elected government? In case of dismal failure of the Government, should the people have to wait for the next elections to have their voices heard, especially in a fledgling democracy? What if the incumbent government changes the laws and the constitution to suit their purpose and self-perpetuation?
With the removal of Morsi, Egypt’s military has once again stepped into the limelight. It has a difficult role in having to reconcile the various political factions without diluting its own power and interests. If the vociferous pro-Morsi group is any indication, it does not seem that the military has been able to stem the nation’s protest culture that has emerged as a strong uniting force for the people since they expelled Mubarak in 2011. The Egyptian model of military-backed secular Arab nationalist political system no longer seems to satisfy the broader community. The military therefore faces a stark choice—adapt, which means the gradual loss of some of its power, or perish. It will be interesting to watch the road that the Egyptian military, for far too long the strength behind the ‘pharaohs’, will take into the future.
Egypt’s democratic experiment has brought about internal confrontation in the near term. Genuine democratic reform can only be ushered in through a process of reconciliatory evolution and not by violence prone revolutions in the span of a mere two years which has not given any of the major players sufficient time to understand the pros and cons of democratic governance. More is the pity that one of the oldest civilisations on Earth could not produce even a single Gandhi or Mandela in its greatest hour of need; a person who could point the way through the morass by example of peace, harmony and national reconciliation. However, true democratisation may be the only the way forward for the nation, irrespective of the hard resistance the military is bound to put up, especially when it feels the erosion of its power.
Democracy is about conceding loss, not winning; and for the winner, it is about sharing with the loser, not exclusion.
            
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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