This piece originally published in The Globe and Mail, I republish it here in case you missed it.
It may seem illogical or even reckless. Why is this huge crowd in Egypt celebrating as they watch their democratically elected president being deposed by the army? There is no simple answer. Egypt’s scene is multidimensional and therefore hard for onlookers to understand immediately.
To start, let’s agree that it was a military coup, but a coup with public consent; a coup backed by a civil uprising and millions of Egyptians protesting in the streets of all regions of Egypt demanding the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
We should also clarify the context. The first step is to appreciate the factors involved in the uprising. First, Mr. Morsi had only managed to secure 25 per cent of votes in the first round of the presidential election, and he won the second round of the election only after many non-Islamists and revolutionary forces had backed him; however, he slowly betrayed them and failed to fulfill his promises.
Second, throughout his one year in power, Mr. Morsi failed on all fronts: politically, economically, and in terms of security. Egyptians felt that their lives didn’t improve but became worse than they had been under dictator Hosni Mubarak. The demands of the January, 2011 revolution – bread, justice and equality – were not fulfilled, and there were no hints of future improvements. Mr. Morsi insisted on appointing men whom he could trust, but these men were not necessarily experienced or professional.
Third, what was more alarming for most Egyptians was the slow trend of changing the identity of the state from a tolerant, diverse society to a more rigid Islamist society linked to a wider Islamist project and not to a national Egyptian movement.
Fourth, Egyptians watched as countries such as Qatar and Turkey had more influence on the presidential team than local political forces. The joke in Egypt was that Mr. Morsi only served his “tribe,” the Muslim Brotherhood, and was not interested in the rest of the nation.
Fifth, minorities started to feel threatened and intimidated; the main Coptic cathedral was attacked during Mr. Morsi’s reign, and Shia were threatened and murdered; he didn’t do enough to calm the raging sectarian flames.
On the other hand, the opposition was divided after years of oppression under Mubarak, and failed to unite or formulate a joint plan to fight the Islamists.
Facing a harsh economic situation, political deadlock, failed opposition forces, and more importantly a risk of Islamization and a change of identity and way of life, the Egyptian youth decided to take the matter into their own hands, and initiated a massive signature campaign to impeach the president. They managed to collect 22 million signatures in this country of 80 million. Despite the skepticism of many, they managed to deliver an impressive rally on June 30.
The second step in understanding the context is to comprehend the forces at work in the army.
First, it is important to highlight that the army fulfilled its promises and handed power to Mr. Morsi once he was elected. Second, the army also accepted Mr. Morsi’s decision to dismiss Mr. Mubarak’s men – Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi and Chief of Staff Hafez Anan – last August.
Third, Mr. Morsi appointed the current defence minister, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who on Wednesday announced the president’s ouster and the suspension of the constitution. General Sissi initially appeared compliant to Mr. Morsi’s leadership, but it did not last. The relationship between the two grew increasingly tense, particularly after the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last year by Islamist groups and Mr. Morsi’s apparent reluctance to arrest the perpetrators, who are still at large. Fourth, earlier this year, another group of military personnel were kidnapped and then mysteriously released, yet the kidnappers were never arrested.
Fifth, on the political front, General Sissi offered to mediate between Mr. Morsi and the opposition, yet Mr. Morsi firmly rejected the army’s offer.
And what finally broke the last link between Mr. Morsi and the military was Morsi’s call for the Egyptian people and army to support the Syrian revolution; the military was not willing to be dragged into such a reckless foreign adventure.
It is fair to say that rebels and the army had joined interests to oust Mr. Morsi, but there is no evidence to support claims that the army explicitly or implicitly supported the rebellion during its campaign.
Would the rebellious protesters have been able to oust Mr. Morsi without the army’s intervention? Surely, the answer is no. Mohamed Morsi clearly articulated his stance as one of defiance, and he thought that if he could survive until the start of Ramadan (July 8), then the protesters might get fed up and go home.
On the other hand, and after sensing Mr. Morsi’s defiance, the army probably felt it had to deliver a quick ultimatum – mainly to avoid an eruption of violence that would be difficult to contain. With Sinai out of control, the risk of Hamas backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and serious wide-spread collapse of law and order, it would have been tactically unwise for the army to join late.
So what’s next? The short answer is that no one knows. There’s no way to know the real intentions of the military junta, or the next step of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not really accurate to compare this coup with that of 1952; after all, the Egyptian public did not revolt against the late king, but the public later accepted the coup, thanks to the charisma and charm of president Gamal Abdel Nasser; this time, the youth will not be willing to sacrifice their freedom for a few charming words from General Sissi. More importantly, the Egyptians’ main asset, ironically, is their existence, and their ability to successfully assemble and protest in great numbers against their leaders. Gen. Sissi was smart and outmaneuvered Morsi, but Gen. Sissi is not blinded enough by ideology to risk being another Morsi, Mubarak or even Nasser.
For now, Egyptians are celebrating their victory against what many of them perceive as Islamist fascism. Tomorrow, they will have to figure out ways to clamp down on the army’s autocratic tendencies. General Sissi stood on Wednesday night with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, a Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a Salafi leader, and the young leaders of the protest movement. There is no chance that this bunch will stand by him tomorrow if he decides to play a dictator. On the other hand, he will be a fool to think that arresting Brotherhood figures, and alienating their youth, will make his job easier. Oppressing the Brotherhood will only compound the tension, and may lead to an endless cycle of violence or even political assassination.
Egypt has chosen a very risky maverick approach to stop the creeping autocracy of the Islamists, and to achieve a pluralistic democracy, but the outcome depends on learning from past mistakes and avoiding future autocratic temptations.