A “democratic” coup

The military overthrow of President Morsi is not a coup for democracy, but an old remedy that has long failed.

John Kerry, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The recent coup in Egypt does not bode well for the nation and the wider Middle East, if history is any indication of things to come, according to Deepak Tripathi [AP]

The military overthrow of Egypt’s freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi represents the beginning of a new, more turbulent phase in the country. The coup in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power.

Beyond the immediate outcome, however, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty, and caused further ruptures in civil society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, surely an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on.

The newly installed interim president Adly Masour has appointed a 35-member cabinet led by an economist, Hazem el-Beblawi. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, is the first deputy prime minister and defence minister. Prominent anti-Morsi figure and ex-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is one of three acting vice presidents in the new administration, which has also dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of the Egyptian parliament.

The new administration is made up of technocrats and unelected people, establishing the armed forces as the real power. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christians, about 10 per cent of the 85 million person population, felt threatened by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy with the new constitution, which Morsi had pushed through just over six months ago.

His administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

However, there are problems with this narrative. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. There are large demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters almost every day, and a military crackdown is going on against Brotherhood leaders and activists.

In one of the bloodiest incidents, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. The swearing-in of the new cabinet took place amid continuing clashes in which lives were being lost. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military.

This experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility.

There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On 6 July, the New York Times published an expose on the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh.

Al Jazeera speaks to protesters in Egypt

According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a ‘final offer’ which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was about to begin, and a Morsi aide told another associate, “Mother just told that we will stop playing in an hour.” The State Department in Washington offered no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the Egyptian military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. As clashes continued on the streets of Cairo, America’s deputy secretary of state William Burns met Egypt’s new leaders in the capital, telling them of President Obama’s firm commitment to help Egypt succeed in this “second chance” for democracy.

President Obama’s preferred scenario is to ensure that any political change in Egypt is under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. In its fundamentals, Washington’s latest remedy is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and joined the U.S. alliance. 


Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the post-Soviet world.