Egypt: The coup capital of the world?

If Egyptians want long-lasting political peace, they must bridge the divides tearing them apart
An Egyptian flag stained with blood flutters over members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi as they shout slogans during a protest outside Raba El-Adwyia mosque in Cairo July 8, 2013, following clashes in front of the Republican Guard headquarters. At least 51 people were killed on Monday when demonstrators enraged by the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president said the army opened fire during morning prayers outside the Cairo barracks where Mursi is believed to be held. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX11GUR
The coup capital of the world?
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The Arab Spring in Egypt was a visual feast. For 18 days, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was filled with protesters demanding that the country’s long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, leave office. And when he did, the square erupted in joy. A seemingly immovable strongman had been pushed aside. It was striking to watch. And yet the more consequential change might have been invisible at the time. Egyptians had changed inside.

“People will not be fooled again. They know how to demand their rights and will not let them be taken away again,” a street artist named Omar Fathy told Maclean’s.

Such thoughts were comforting to the many Egyptians who opposed Mubarak’s elected successor, Mohamed Morsi. They had been defeated at the ballot box. But they told themselves that if things got too bad, if Morsi became too dictatorial or governed as too much of an Islamist, Egyptians would rise up and overthrow him.

This seemed unlikely during the early months of Morsi’s presidency. He had won the election in part because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s impressive ability to mobilize votes, but also because his opponents were fragmented and disorganized. After years of illegality and political exclusion, the Brotherhood in Egypt had a decent chance to show the world that political Islam was compatible with inclusive and competent government. They blew it.

The first thing Morsi needed to do was reach out to Egyptians who don’t support the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi had won only 25 per cent of votes in the first round of the presidential election. He won on the second round, argues Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, because of support from liberals, secularists and leftists who chose him over Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a man many associated with the former regime. “It’s not true that he had the majority of the country,” says Al Sayyid.

But Morsi did not govern like someone who needed to broaden his base. In the eyes of many Egyptians, he was a president for Muslim Brothers only. Liberals, Christians and secularists felt excluded, especially with the adoption of a new constitution drafted by Islamists late last year.

Egyptians also recoiled as Morsi granted himself expanded powers, putting his decisions beyond judicial oversight. He later backtracked, but it was too late to soften the impression that he was a dictator in the making.

Finally, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of running a country, Morsi did a lousy job. His term was marked by economic decline, high unemployment and rampant insecurity. This drove many otherwise apolitical Egyptians onto the streets.

On June 30, one year after Morsi became president, millions of Egyptians—more than protested against Mubarak two years ago—flooded Tahrir and other public squares demanding Morsi’s departure.

“It was something I’ve never witnessed in my whole life in the region,” says Walid Kazziha, a professor at the American University in Cairo, who tried to reach Tahrir Square that day but could not even cross a bridge approaching it because of the crowds. “It was very empowering.”

Three days later, the army stepped in and deposed Morsi. The constitution was suspended, Morsi arrested, and a new interim president, Adly Mansour, installed in his place.

“I don’t know any meaning of the word ‘coup’ that this doesn’t qualify for,” says Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kazziha isn’t so sure. “I think the essential thing in democracy is that it is the people who are deciding,” he says.

“In the Western world there is a consensus that we do things through a constitutional framework, so anything that doesn’t go in that direction is not democratic. In the West they have reached a stable system where they do it. In Egypt, people are at the point where they decide, but the system has not been put in place yet.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters do not accept this argument. They view Egypt’s new government as illegitimate and have been demonstrating to demand Morsi’s reinstatement. Even for some of Morsi’s opponents, the way in which he was unseated is worrying.

“We agreed to play this game,” says Mahmoud Ibrahim, a young political consultant, referring to the electoral process.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic groups are part of this country, and we cannot deny that they won.” Those who lost the game, he adds, cannot then change the rules.

Ibrahim says Egypt’s challenge now is to convince Islamists to participate in future elections. This may prove difficult. The Muslim Brothers might reasonably conclude that they engaged in democracy and it proved futile.

Already slim chances of political reconciliation nosedived this week when at least 50 Brotherhood supporters were shot dead during a confrontation with security forces. The army claims the soldiers were fired on first, and says two policemen and a soldier were killed. The Muslim Brotherhood says the shootings were an unprovoked massacre.

From elsewhere in the country, amateur video has emerged of angry men chasing several teenagers onto a rooftop water tower, throwing two off, and murdering a third. One of the assailants was carrying a black Salafi Islamist flag. Egyptians are turning violently against each other.

“There is incredible short-sightedness on the part of all actors in Egypt,” says Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“We’re at the point now where no one is backing down from anything. And it was bound to lead to this kind of confrontation. When each side is so uncompromising, you end up totally delegitimizing, and in some cases dehumanizing, the other side. This is the natural outcome. You get violence when each side refuses to back down.”

One of the challenges facing Egypt as it tries to forge a pluralistic democracy, says Elgindy, derives from the country’s authoritarian past. For decades, Egyptians had to deal with one central authority. They didn’t need to negotiate sharing power amongst themselves, and struggle to do so now.

“There’s been a basic inability to build consensus,” he says. “You have to be able to sit around the table and agree on a basic set of ideas on how you share the social and political space with groups you may hate and that hold diametrically opposed views. The problem is when one side or the other sees things in winner-takes-all terms.”

There’s little evidence that this is changing. Egypt’s new military-led government says it hopes to hold parliamentary and presidential elections within about six months. If Egyptians want the resulting government to last longer than the last one did, they’ll need to find a way to bridge the divides now splitting them apart.