The armed forces ultimatum and the future of Egypt

Richard Falk examines the causes of the current anti-Morsi protests and considers the possible outcomes for Egypt.

Opposition rally over Morsi decrees
Morsi's presidency may have been doomed from the very start, argues Richard Falk, hobbled by continued internal domestic divisions and economic weaknesses.

General al-Sisi’s Ultimatum 

On Monday General Abdel al-Sisi delivered the following ultimatum on Egyptian TV: that the government of President Mohamed Morsi had 48 hours “to respond to the people’s demands” or the armed forces would impose its “own roadmap of the future”. The full statement also indicated that the armed forces did not want to resume its 2011 role of presiding over the political process.

Such was the dramatic response of the country’s military leadership to the recent massive street protests in Cairo and throughout the country. It was also a dramatic reentry of the Egyptian armed forces into the midst of the political fray.

It should be appreciated that prior to this ultimatum, the armed forces had quietly moved to the political sidelines during the past year, succumbing to a variety of populist pressures to leave responsibility for the governing process in civilian hands in exchange for constitutional reassurances that their primacy in matters of national security and their privileged economic position in Egyptian society would not be at risk in the post-Mubarak era.

[Morsi’s] was a political mission impossible as of 2012, given the obstacles and the contradictory forces at work in the country, region, and world


What makes this ultimatum a new threshold in Egyptian political development is recourse to a starkly anti-democratic initiative to resolve a deepening crisis of democracy, compounded by an increasingly desperate economic situation.

Perhaps, our understanding should proceed from an acknowledgement of what might be described as ‘the Egyptian democratic dilemma’: the elected government is unable to govern in a manner that is acceptable to what appears to be now a new majority of the citizenry, yet the removal of such leadership prior to the 2016 scheduled presidential elections is a profound repudiation of the democratic rules of the game that is unlikely to be voluntarily accepted by those seemingly being asked to step aside.


Should Morsi be Forced to Leave  

There are at least two important and overlapping ways to look at the current situation: ‘Morsi never had a chance’ and ‘Morsi fell woefully far short in meeting the challenges of Egyptian governance’. That is, Morsi’s leadership was resisted from day one by a hostile secular and sectarian opposition and Morsi was so unfit for the job of president given his Muslim Brotherhood affiliation and inexperience making his leadership a disaster for the future of Egypt.

Examining both of these explanations of a confrontation with the mass of demonstrators that now has been given ‘teeth’ by the ultimatum, how shall we best understand what has happened, is happening. Taking first the idea that Morsi was doomed to failure before he ever stepped into the Presidential Palace, it is worth recalling the situation in Egypt back in 2011 after those remarkable 18 days that led Mubarak to jump abruptly overboard after 30 years of dictatorial rule. The triumphal mood in Cairo in the weeks following the victory for the people of Egypt, the mood captured by the phrase, ‘the Arab Spring,’ was always ambivalent about the future role of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Back then my academic friends in Cairo, as well as diverse activists who were fresh from the front lines of Tahrir Square, took the following general line: it is good that the Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it will not field a presidential candidate, but it is important for all of us that the Brotherhood participate in the democratic process that will be soon instituted in Egypt.

They deserve to be part of what is to come in Egypt. Beyond this, it was expected that the MB would do well in the parliamentary elections, likely better than any other organized political actor because of its impressive nationwide network and incomparable grassroots credibility, and this will probably mean a support level of 30 percent, at most 35 percent, with anything over 40 percent being viewed even then as a disaster. What happened when the Egyptian public voted became the equivalent of a secular nightmare.

Morsi is a casualty of a national emergency that is not truly of his making, requiring his unceremonious sacrifice of Egypt is to have the fresh start it needs if it is to have any chance of moving forward at this time

The MB received electoral support at a level beyond 50 percent, reinforced by an unexpected additional 20 percent or so support from among various Salafi political parties, and the liberal secular candidates made a consistently poor showing. These outcomes, combined with the reversal of the earlier MB position with respect to taking part in the presidential elections, was too much for the urban secular elites, as well as the Copts, to live with

These patterns of disaffection deepened considerably when the first round of the presidential elections ended up without a majority candidate, compelling a run-off between the two top finishers. The result pitted the MB candidate, Morsi, against Mubarak’s last prime minister and former air force commander, Ahmed Shafik.

Such an encounter was already deeply disillusioning for those who were most excited by the spirit of Tahrir Square who disliked with almost equal fervour the two options that they were being given, neither of which had been a congenial nor significant presence during the excitement of the revolutionary process.

After much tension, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, finally declared Morsi the winner of the June 2012 runoff elections by the narrow margin of 2 percent. We take notice of this first huge failure of democracy—a presidential choice that was dramatically removed from the existential forces that brought about the downfall of the Mubarak regime by their demands for freedom, rights, dignity, and a government that represented all the people of the country.

Morsi, an engineer by profession, without governing experience, faced with a bureaucracy, especially the security services, and judiciary that was hostile to the MB, an economy in the doldrums, several influential foreign governments hoping that an Islamic led governing process in Egypt would collapse, and a wide spectrum of the public impatiently clamouring for a restoration of normalcy and the resumption of tourism and foreign investment, was obviously overwhelmed by the situation. In such circumstances, maybe even Nelson Mandela would have failed to foster unity and raise the confidence levels of the Egyptian people, and even the best boosters of the MB would not claim that Morsi is near being the equal of Mandela! Arguably, no one in Egypt could have rescued the situation.

It was a political mission impossible as of 2012, given the obstacles and the contradictory forces at work in the country, region, and world. Morsi’s ‘stop and start’ style of governing made matters somewhat worse, emboldened the unappeasable opposition, and helped bring the simmering pot of Egyptian politics to a rapid boil, but maybe in the end had he ruled with a sure and inclusive hand, the best that he could have achieved was one more year before the discontent assumed its present crisis proportions.

It would seem that Morsi was marked for failure from the start and that he lent aid and comfort to his growing cohort of enemies by a devastating mixture of ineptitude and an awkwardly defensive posture that conveyed to the public the opposite of an inclusive approach. In a sense Morsi unnecessarily crossed a red line when he appointed as governor of Luxor a member of the extremist organization Gamaa Islamiya that was responsible for a shocking terrorist attack in 1997 on a tourist bus that killed 58 foreigners.

Although this unfortunate appointee quickly withdrew in the face of angry public reaction, Morsi was also sharply criticized at the time for pursuing an Islamist agenda as several of the other designated provincial governors were members of the MB.

In the background, was the daily ordeal of the Egyptian people faced with rising prices for the necessities of life, declining incomes, a 10 percent inflation, fuel shortages, concerns about food security, a surge of street crime, and horizons of despair about the foreseeable future. In such an atmosphere, what could not have been imagined two years earlier suddenly seemed influential: the spreading belief that things were actually better for ordinary people when Mubarak ruled the country—at least the tourists came, foreign investment flourished, and the streets and roads were mainly safe.

When the Military Calls the Shots

Even against this anguishing background, there is a chilling effect of such a return of the military to the center of the Egyptian scene, in part responding to the call of the street, but also undoubtedly issuing a sincere appeal given their sense of the alternatives facing the country. To begin with, does such a partisan intrusion clearly favoring the anti-MB forces resolve or deepen the crisis?

A prominent leader of the MB, Mohamed Beltagy, was quoted as saying “No coup against the legitimate government of any kind will pass except over our dead bodies”. In the background of regional memories is the gory Algerian story of a military takeover in 1992 to override the December 1991 electoral successes of the Islamic Salvation Front, leading to a civil war that produced 60,000 deaths by its end, giving rise to a long period of stern authoritarian military rule, and resulting in the complete closure of democratic space. Is this the sort of future that is being depicted for Egypt and Egyptians if the present situation is viewed in the many prevalent mirrors of discontent?

Mass protests mark Morsi’s tumultuous year

It is important to recall that the MB had been persecuted for 80 years by Egyptian governments before being selected by a majority of voters throughout elections held in the 2011 and 2012 sequence of elections, which was itself something extraordinary– first fair and free elections ever held in the country’s long history. As a MB official pointed out, the military seems to have forgotten the other half of the Egyptian people that had cast their vote in favour Morsi, given the one-sided way wording of the ultimatum.

Even President Barack Obama was not ready to throw in the Morsi towel quite yet, pointing out in the midst of his African vacation that when Mubarak was overthrown the Egyptian street was reacting after three decades of oppressive dictatorship, while with Morsi there has been just one year of disappointment and incompetence during what was bound to be a bumpy transition to democracy no matter who was in charge. One haunting question of fundamental fairness is whether Morsi’s sins are so venal that he needs to be dumped once and for all, and in such an inglorious manner.

Another question is less about Morsi’s culpability than about the precarious condition of Egyptian society as it teeters on the brink of collapse, not a trivial concern for a society of more than 90 million. Perhaps, prudent observers would say that the protests were a warning that drastic steps needed to be taken, and could not be so long as the MB remains at the helm of the ship of state. On this understanding, Morsi is a casualty of a national emergency that is not truly of his making, requiring his unceremonious sacrifice of Egypt is to have the fresh start it needs if it is to have any chance of moving forward at this time.

Hazards of Democratic Transition

Two years after Tahrir Square and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia it is evident that the struggle against authoritarianism in the Arab world is often frustrated, and even when it appears to succeed because the hated ruler has been forced to leave, the struggle is far from over. Not only Egypt, but Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Tunisia are illustrative of the wide spectrum of wrongs that can emerge on the morning after.

The revolutionary nature of what happened is not reversible, but neither are the hopeful expectations necessarily sustainable. In this sense, the polarization of political life is dangerous because it tends toward fashioning a war mentality of ‘us’ against ‘them,’ making reconciliation and compromise seem irrelevant and outside the domain of serious debate. Today Egypt finds itself stuck in this domain, and the forces that would pull it back onto a path of moderation seem weak and discredited.

In sum, Morsi’s legitimacy is sufficient and his wrongdoing insufficient to justify his ouster prior to the expiration of his term, but Egypt cannot survive as a coherent society if it has to wait until 2016 for the next cycle of presidential elections.

Some have suggested that the appointment of a prime minister drawn from the leadership of the opposition might be enough of a victory to give the government one more opportunity to work through the crisis by essentially democratic and constitutional means. Such a plan might succeed, especially if outside political actors help Egypt with a massive infusion of capital, supplies of oil and food, coupled with the willingness of the antagonist in Egypt to agree on a ‘political time out’ to give social peace a chance.

There are several broader issues manifest in the Egyptian situation that have also surfaced in the massive protests of recent weeks in Turkey and Brazil. There is a potentially creative awakening of democracy from below, an unwillingness to be content any longer with the meagre outcomes of procedural democracy when elected leaders fail to do what the citizenry believes it necessary to do, a refusal to defer to the will of the majority when essential values and vital human interests are at stake, and a restless search, especially by the young, for a different kind of politics that is less focused on governing and institutional control, and more concerned with what kind of society is being formed, for whom, by whom.

It is not a venting of anger at such polarising political figures as Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Mohamed Morsi, but a sense that a more substantive and participatory democracy can be reinvented for the benefit of human security and to construct a better future for the whole of society. In the end, maybe it is less a matter of the reinvention of democracy, than the rediscovery of its oldest belief: government of, by, and for the people. 

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You can follow Professor Falk on Twitter @rfalk13