How to Thwart Democracy?
In Egypt the Military is Supreme
by ESAM AL-AMIN
The Generals have done it again!
Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed one year after being democratically elected by the Egyptian people. For those opposed to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the move by the military is seen as supporting a popular uprising and a belated effort to revive or restore the Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. But for Morsi’s supporters or those who simply had any respect for democratic governance and the rule of law, the action by the army is nothing short of a brazen though soft military coup d’état.
Which one is it? Here are the facts.
The military in Egypt has always enjoyed a privileged and autonomous status and is tacitly considered the power behind the throne. For decades, political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite yet mostly corrupt political and business class that monopolized power and looted the country’s resources. But the revolution that toppled Mubarak was in essence a rejection not just against the dictator, but also his entire corrupt regime. One of the major demands of the revolution was to get rid of dictatorship and repression and uphold the principles of democracy and the rule of law.
Over the next two years, the political process that followed Mubarak’s overthrow allowed for the will of the Egyptian people to be expressed numerous times through free and fair elections and referenda. The people in Egypt went to the polls at least six times: to vote for a referendum to chart the political way forward (March 2011), to vote for the lower and upper house of parliament (November 2011-January 2012), to elect a civilian president over two rounds (May-June 2012), and to ratify the new constitution (December 2012). Each time the electorate voted for the choice of the Islamist parties to the frustration of the secular and liberal opposition.
To the discontent of the Islamists, all their gains at the polls were reversed by either the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) or the military. The lower house of parliament, of which the Islamists won seventy three percent of the seats, was dissolved by the SCC a year ago, while the military has just suspended the new constitution, while ousting the democratically-elected president.
Undoubtedly, the MB committed colossal mistakes. For example, they reneged on several promises to their secular and liberal coalition partners, including to not contest the majority of parliamentary seats, field a presidential candidate, or be more exclude others in the composition of the Constitution Constituent Assembly. Perhaps, their gravest mistake was to ally themselves closely with the Salafist groups during the process of writing the constitution, thus alienating many of the secularists, liberals, as well as Christians even though the MB did not care much about the constitutional ideological battle. Their motivation was not to be outflanked by the Salafis on the Islamic identity of the state. To accomplish this objective, they lost most of the others.
In addition, Morsi and the MB did not adhere to their promise of full partnership in governance. Many of the youth and opposition groups felt that the president and MB leadership were not genuine in their outreach and only sought their participation for cosmetic reasons. Even their Islamic partners such as the Salafist Al-Noor Party complained that the MB wanted to monopolize the major power centers in the state. It did not matter that the MB did not control the military, the intelligence, the security apparatus, the police, the diplomatic corps, the banking system, or even the bureaucracy. But because of the MB’s lack of transparency and openness, the perception was that they were trying to control the major centers of powers in the state and exclude other parties based on ideology while the reality was that such control was non-existent or superficial.
But to the average people on the street what mattered was their security and livelihood. During his one year in power, Morsi faced enormous challenges: deterioration in security and basic services, lack of social justice, and economic decline. It appeared to many as deliberate attempts by the deep state (entrenched elements and bureaucrats loyal to the former regime) to ensure the failure of his presidency. His lack of transparency and openness to his people in favor of presenting an optimistic or upbeat outlook added to public cynicism and the perception of incompetence. Another major mistake by the MB was its failure to separate its socio-religious movement from its political manifestation, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). While the public in past times respected the MB for its social services and religious outreach, engaging in politics by its nature is a source of division and rancor. For example when the MB fielded its presidential candidate in March 2012, it was MB’s Guidance Bureau that made the declaration instead of the FJP. In the eyes of the public there was little distinction between the MB and the FJP. So the MB was, correctly or not, held responsible for any political missteps by the FJP.
In part because the 2011 revolutionary partners were sharply divided on ideological grounds, former regime loyalists, politicians, and corrupt businessmen were able to regroup and play an increasing role in the political battles that engulfed the country. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which dominated political life for decades, was the only party in the country capable of organizing nationwide and competing with the MB. But since the public rejected the NDP (and it was banned shortly after Mubarak was deposed), it did not participate in the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011. However, by June 2012, Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last Prime Minster, represented the NDP’s interests. As one of the two remaining candidates in the second round of the presidential elections, he ultimately lost by less than two percent.
Morsi took over power by June 30, 2012. When he was not as inclusive as promised in his senior appointments, the opposition almost immediately turned against him. Two months after he was sworn in, they called for a massive protest on August 24, calling it “The protest to oust the rule of the Brotherhood.” Their hostility and acrimony increased as the writing of the new constitution was finalized. Meanwhile, the new political openness and freedom in the country allowed for the private media, owned and controlled by many of the former regime’s loyalists and supporters, to target Morsi and the MB in an orchestrated campaign to alienate and inflame the public.
By the time the president issued his ill-advised and ill-fated constitutional decree, the opposition was not only united against Morsi and the MB but also determined to dislodge them from power. Morsi argued that his move was necessary to protect the nascent democratic political structures that the courts were dissolving one by one. He eventually reversed course and annulled his decree, even though the opposition rejected all his appeals for political dialogue. However, his objective of having a new constitution, which the opposition vehemently rejected, and replacing the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor, a demand that the youth and revolutionary groups had called for, were already fulfilled. This single act proved to be a rallying point for all the opposition and the remnants of the former regime (fulool), which united under the National Salvation Front (NSF) in order to confront and defeat Morsi and the MB. They campaigned vigorously to defeat the constitution, which to their dismay, was passed by 64 percent.
Meanwhile, the MB and their Islamist allies aimed at targeting the corrupt elements in the judiciary, which represented not only a major obstacle in delaying or dissolving the new democratic components of the state, but also it reversed the convictions and released all the corrupt elements of the Mubarak regime. Although this was also a revolutionary demand, the opposition, which so far had not fared well at the ballot box, aligned itself with the judiciary and accused the Islamists of attacking an independent branch of government that had reservations, if not outright discontent, about the revolution.
By the spring of 2013, the MB and its supporters were preparing for new parliamentary elections, which they had expected to win. Their strategy was that if they won the parliamentary elections and forced judiciary reform, they would be able to control or influence all branches of government and easily confront the deep state and institute their program. Sensing the danger of this scenario, NSF coordinator Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei met with Shafiq in the United Arab Emirates in March. In an interview last week, Shafiq disclosed that he and ElBaradei had agreed on an elaborate plan to depose Morsi and the MB. He also predicted that Morsi and MB officials would be arrested and tried. Furthermore, Shafiq complained that ElBaradei and the opposition did not fulfill their part of the bargain, which was to promote and support Shafiq and help make him the next president, and that they instead began to distance themselves from him.
Throughout the political power struggle, the youth movements, which spearheaded the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime, were marginalized while their grievances were not addressed. Morsi and the MB gave only lip service to their demands and needs. But during his address to the nation last week, Morsi belatedly acknowledged this neglect as he promised to address it. By late April, the youth groups had already come together to form a new movement called Tamarrud or Rebellion. The central theme in their program was to call for early presidential elections by gathering 15 million signatures, a million more than Morsi had received during his presidential run.
During the process, the secular opposition and the fulool embraced Tamarrud’s message, while the latter used the offices of the NSF and held several press conferences at the headquarters of well-known media outlets of Mubarak loyalists. There is also anecdotal evidence that the group received financial support from fulool groups. Meanwhile, the private media started a well-orchestrated campaign and continuous onslaught on the MB in particular and the Islamists in general. The level of hostility and hatred spewed against them was reminiscent of the 1930s Nazi propaganda against the Jews. Dozens of incidents were reported in the past two months, in which supporters of the MB were attacked verbally and physically by strangers because of their purported associations.
Though the campaign against the MB was in full swing, the president and the group did not take it seriously and did not attempt to offer a compromise to the opposition or genuinely address their concerns. They miscalculated badly as they thought that the popular support of Tamarrud’s initiative was thin. In short, the MB was facing a perfect storm. Whether in reality or perception, the MB has alienated its former liberal and secular partners, the youth groups, the judiciary, the media, the general public because of lack of services and rising prices The fulool and their allies within the deep state took advantage of this public discontent. Many former security officials and wealthy businessmen tied to the former regime were seen organizing and mobilizing for the June 30th protest, the day Tamarrud designated to force Morsi’s ouster. By July 2, the Appellate Court invalidated the appointment of the General Prosecutor appointed by Morsi and returned the Mubarak-appointed corrupt prosecutor, who was dismissed last November. Furthermore, in order to further muddy the political scene, the courts also ordered that Morsi’s Prime Minister, Dr. Hisham Qandil, be arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for not implementing an earlier court order given to a Mubarak-era prime minister.
However, on June 30 an impressive numbers of Egyptians protested against the MB and the president in Tahrir Square and across Egypt. It was reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 protests against Mubarak. Although the protesters did not include Islamist groups, they were diverse. Many youth groups were represented, voicing their frustration of being marginalized and their demands neglected. Many were ordinary citizens alienated because of economic hardship and the lack of basic services. Many were secularists who hated Islamists and wanted to overthrow them by revolutionary means since they could not defeat them at the ballot box. Many were Christians who feared the Islamists and were tacitly encouraged by the Coptic Church to participate. But it was also clear than many were fulool and Mubarak regime loyalists as the picture of the former dictator was prominently raised and hailed in Tahrir Square amid chants in his support. Many were also former and current security officials who showed up in their uniforms. Even two former Interior Ministers who served during the military transitional rule and former regime were leading the protests as revolutionaries, even though they were charged by the youth groups at the time with murdering their revolutionary friends and comrades. Many protesters were also thugs hired by NDP politicians and corrupt business people. In fact, over the three days protest, these thugs raped over 100 women in Tahrir Square including female journalists, according to public officials. Meanwhile, in an orchestrated manner, dozens of buildings that belonged to the MB and the FJP including their headquarters were burned down, torched, or ransacked. More than a dozen members were killed, while hundreds were wounded. Within hours, five cabinet ministers resigned and dozens of senior officials including presidential spokespersons and dozens of diplomats submitted their resignations in an attempt to collapse the state.
Meanwhile, pro-Morsi supporters were also gathering in a different square in Cairo in large numbers. After the MB and its allies saw the massive demonstrations of their opponents on June 30 they called for massive mobilization the following day, holding more than 20 huge protests across the country that also numbered in the millions. With few exceptions, the secular and liberal media ignored these protests.
On the afternoon of June 30, Defense Minister and military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi last August, issued an ultimatum to the president and the opposition to reach a compromise within 48 hours or else the military would intervene. In reality, it was an ultimatum to the president to resign since the opposition had in the past rejected all attempts at dialogue or compromise. On July 1, the frustrated president addressed the nation and adamantly rejected the military’s ultimatum, as he called on his people to support his legitimacy as a democratically-elected president. Immediately after the speech, the president’s supporters, who were holding a huge rally in Giza, were attacked by thugs and snipers. Sixteen people were killed and hundreds wounded.
By July 2, it was evident that the army has decided to overthrow Morsi and side with the opposition. As the military reached out to foreign governments, it was clear that many Western governments, especially the U.S. had difficulty accepting the military overthrow of an elected president. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, called their Egyptian counterparts, advising that they should instead either encourage Morsi to resign or keep him as a figurehead.
However, as they officially announced that Morsi was removed from power, the generals surrounded themselves with several civilian and religious leaders, including the head of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, ElBaradei as NSF spokesman, and representatives of Tamarrud and the Salafist Al-Noor Party. It was a brazen attempt to make it seem as if the overthrow of Morsi had broad consensus by civilian and religious leaders.
In essence, Sisi embraced all the demands of the opposition and the fulool. Not only did he depose Morsi and replace him with the head of the SCC, but he also suspended the constitution and dismissed the government. He unilaterally also gave the powers to issue constitutional decrees and legislative authority to the newly- installed president. Within minutes, huge celebrations with full display of festivities and fireworks were taking place in Tahrir Square and in many cities across Egypt. Meanwhile, Morsi’s supporters across Egypt were stunned and angry at the turn of events. They had mistakenly held hope that the army would force some sort of a compromise that would not circumvent the will of the Egyptian people who elected a president and passed a new constitution with a large margin only few months ago.
Immediately after Sisi’s announcement, the new regime began its crackdown on the media that supported the deposed president. Four TV satellite channels that belonged to the MB or the Islamists, as well as two Al-Jazeera channels were suspended and taken off the air. The pro-Morsi protests across Egypt were also surrounded by the military. TV cameras were removed and the electricity was cut in anticipation of forcefully evacuating the protesters, as food and water were denied.
Meanwhile, MB leaders Mohammad El-Beltagi and Esam El-Erian, who played pivotal roles during the 2011 revolution, called Morsi’s ouster by the military an illegal coup d’état and vowed to oppose it, as they called on their supporters to resist it with all peaceful means even if they lose their lives. Morsi also released an eleven-minute video on the Internet rejecting his overthrow and defying the military’s act, insisting on his constitutional legitimacy as the duly elected president of the country.
Meanwhile, a crackdown against the MB leaders and their supporters was in full force, strongly suggesting premeditation. Within two hours of Sisi’s announcement, Morsi and some of his senior assistants were detained and transferred to the defense ministry. Former speaker and FJP Chairman, Dr. Saad Katatni, , MB leader and General Guide Dr. Muhammad Badie, as well as his deputies Khayrat El-Shater and Rashad Bayyoumi were also arrested. Former presidential candidate and Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and preacher Safwat Hegazi were arrested and charged with ‘insulting the military.’ Al-Ahram newspaper also reported that over 300 arrest warrants were issued against the MB and their supporters, as dozens were rounded up while all MB and FJP properties, assets, and buildings were being seized and their bank accounts frozen. Moreover, within minutes of the announcement, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Muhammd Bin Zayed of the UAE, the two countries most openly hostile to the MB’s rule, issued statements praising and congratulating the military. Ironically, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria expressed his relief and joy at the ouster of ‘the Islamist regime’ that was threatening his country.
Meanwhile, the Secular and liberal opposition and many youth groups and their supporters argued that their protests followed by the ouster of Morsi by the military was analogous to the overthrow of Mubarak. But this argument conveniently ignores the fact that Mubarak was not a legitimate president or elected by the will of the Egyptian people while Morsi, whether one supports or opposes him, loves or hates him, was duly elected in free, fair, and contested elections that the entire world observed and accepted. Furthermore, Mubarak killed hundreds of youth in order to stay in power, while dozens of youth were killed in the streets defending the legitimacy of Morsi’s presidency. In addition, most of the people and groups who oppose Morsi today after one year in power, never lifted a finger during Mubarak’s 30 year reign. Mubarak’s security apparatus used thugs to terrorize his opponents and oversee fraudulent elections, while the same thugs today attack and terrorize unarmed supporters of Morsi. While official and government media outlets and corrupt businesspeople and judges supported Mubarak for decades, the same government-supported media, businesspeople, and judges attacked Morsi from his first day in office.
Liberals, democrats, and human rights activists have been preaching to Islamists for decades that democracy is the only legitimate system for peaceful political participation and transition of power. In 1992, when the Algerian military intervened and canceled elections after the Islamic Salvation front (FIS) won it, the West, led by the U.S. and France, looked the other way. Meanwhile, Algeria was engulfed in civil strife for over a decade, a conflict that resulted in over two thousand deaths. Two decades later, whether or not one agrees with its political program, favors or despises the MB, there is no doubt that the group played by the rules of democracy and embraced the rule of law. It did not employ or advocate the use of violence. Yet, it is the height of irony that the ones who called for, encouraged, and cheered the military intervention to oust a democratically-elected president are the secular, liberal, and leftist parties and individuals such as ElBaradei, Amr Mousa, Naguib Sawiris, Ayman Noor, and Hamdein Sabbahi, as well as human and civil rights activists who frequently advocate for free media and freedom of political association.
The international community looked the other way when the will of the Algerian and Palestinian people were thwarted when they elected Islamists in 1992 and 2006. This is the third time in two decades Islamists are dislodged from power. It remains to be seen if the West will take a strong stand against the military’s latest attempt to prevent Islamists from holding power. It may indeed define the relationship between Islamist groups and Western governments for the foreseeable future. The message such stand would send to people around the world will be profound. Either the West stands for democratic principles and the rule of law or it does not. When President Obama called Morsi on June 30, he admonished him that “democracy is about more than elections.” But what is equally essential to recognize is that there is no democracy without respecting and protecting the legitimacy of its results regardless of its outcome.
Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.