Egypt: A coup, and the seeds of a new revolution

The Egyptian people’s army has betrayed the Egyptian people. Its blunder is in also underestimating them
Members of the ruling military council, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, left, listens as Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin, speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 18, 2012. Al-Assar, a senior member of the ruling council, said the generals would transfer power in a "grand ceremony." He did not give an exact date or mention Morsi by name. He said the new president will have the authority to appoint and dismiss the government and that the military council has no intention of taking away any of the president’s authorities. "We’ll never tire or be bored from assuring everyone that we will hand over power before the end of June," al-Assar told a televised news conference. (AP Photo/Sami Wahib)

Moves by Egypt’s ruling military council to dissolve the country’s elected parliament and grant itself sweeping legislative powers — including stripping the president of any control over the army — have justifiably been described as a coup d’état. They are also an enormous blunder.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces retained control of the country following last year’s uprising in Tahrir Square that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. The military threw its leader under the bus to preserve its power. Yet many Egyptians, at least initially, believed a transition to democracy was under way. This is what the military had promised, and unlike in other Middle Eastern dictatorships, the Egyptian army commanded broad credibility and affection.

Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif — a left-leaning liberal — seemed genuinely conflicted when I asked her whether she and other Egyptian revolutionaries had trusted the army too much.

“Yes. Of course,” she said, during a phone interview in April. And then: “I can’t give you one answer that I’m totally confident with and that I will stand by next week.” The Egyptian army is a people’s army, she said. Everyone has a relative who serves in it. So trusting them was “optimistic, but it wasn’t stupid.”

It wasn’t stupid. Forcing a confrontation with the army last February would have meant more bloodshed when it wasn’t obvious that further sacrifices were necessary. But it’s now clear that the Egyptian people’s army has betrayed the Egyptian people. Its blunder is in also underestimating them.

“My feeling is that something has broken down and that the people are not afraid. The barrier of fear has been broken down,” Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo said in an interview a couple of weeks ago.

“If the state wants to use the army to suppress the people and demonstrators, they could end up with the fragmentation and the destruction of the army itself.”

Kazziha was describing a potent and potentially explosive mix: a population that will not longer be cowed, and an army that may not be willing to resort to the level of brutality necessary to suppress them.

The irony is that by resorting to such undemocratic measures, the ruling military council has strengthened its rival and chief bogeyman, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when it was poised to face the pedestal-eroding rigours of actually governing. (The Muslim Brothers won a plurality of votes in legislative elections, which have now been annulled; and their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is the unofficial winner of last weekend’s presidential election.)

The Muslim Brothers are so popular in Egypt at least in part because they are its oldest and most entrenched opposition movement. They’ve never governed, and so have no stain of corruption or incompetence about them. And through decades of dictatorship, a lot of Egyptians have projected their hopes on them. By dismissing the legislature and weakening the presidency, the SCAF has allowed this dynamic to return. Egyptians, however, will not rewind time. They stood up to Mubarak when he seemed immovable. They will stand up to the doppelgangers that have replaced him.