Egypt’s fast-moving 21st-century brand of Arab revolutionary politics has once again enthralled the world and produced an outcome that does not fit neatly into any category.
Should we celebrate? Should we worry? Was it a popular revolution? Was it a military coup?
Exactly one year after the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi became the legally and democratically elected President of Egypt, the people took to the streets to demand his resignation. Millions upon millions shouted they were fed up with Morsi and the Brotherhood’s misrule, incompetence, intolerance and creeping authoritarianism. As the size of the crowd exploded, the country’s military leaders gave Morsi a deadline to work things out with his critics. Within two days, the head of the Armed Forces announced Morsi was no longer president.
This stunning turn of events comes filled with both good news and bad.
Before we look at the conflicting elements, it’s crucial to remember how much this all matters. Not only is Egypt the biggest, most populous country in the Arab world, it is also a bellwether, a trendsetter. What happens in Egypt reverberates across the Middle East.
The good news is that the majority of the Egyptian people have rejected the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood started winning elections across the region following the overthrow of dictators, it was commonly described as moderate and pragmatic. To be sure, the group had a strategic approach, and it did a remarkable job of building up support and persuading its critics that it could be trusted.
And yet, the Muslim Brotherhood has never changed its objectives. It expressed patience, a willingness to take its time reaching them, but its goal remained the introduction of a fundamentalist regime dominating the life of the individual, the state and society through its interpretation of Islamist law. It’s was a vision that would be devastating for women, for non-Muslims, for non-Sunni Muslims and for anyone who does not want religious authorities to dictate all aspects of their life.
Morsi’s year in power was disastrous for Coptic Christians and for Shiite Muslims. It brought ominous signs for women, for a free press and civil society.
The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are Muslims. They have not rejected their religion, they have rejected the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea of the role religion should have in government and in politics. That is an exciting development.
The news, however, is not all good.
Like it or not, Morsi was democratically elected. And he was removed by force.
True, he was elected by the thinnest of margins. In the first round of elections he won a plurality, but most voted for other candidates. In the second round, the choice was the Muslim Brotherhood or a candidate from the old regime. Morsi barely pulled out a victory.
With that dubious mandate, he set out to put Muslim Brotherhood hands on the levers of power. And yet, he was the democratically elected president of Egypt.
Morsi’s overthrow means that the democratic process has failed.
We can never know what would have happened if the Army had not intervened; not just what would have happened with the protests, but what would have happened over the years. Would the Muslim Brotherhood have found a way to prevent another election?
There is much debate about whether what happened qualifies as a “coup.” It’s hard to argue it was not, when the military removed the president. But we cannot ignore that the move had the strong approval of large parts of the population. The military announcement was attended and hailed by the country’s top Muslim, Christian and secular leaders.
There’s much for historians to discuss about what just transpired. But what matters is what comes next. The Muslim Brotherhood still enjoys the support of a significant part of the population.
In the best-case scenario, the authorities organize new, speedy elections. The Muslim Brotherhood fields a candidate. The secular groups, at last, manage an electoral victory. They build a new government that is inclusive, egalitarian and democratic. Then Egypt writes a good constitution that the entire country can support, guaranteeing equality for women and minorities, rule of law — and a constitutional mechanism for removing a president, if that becomes necessary.
In the worst-case scenario, the country becomes more divided and violent, the economic collapse continues. The Brotherhood goes underground and the country tears itself apart. The prospect is terrible to contemplate, but the examples of how badly things could turn out are visible in other parts of the Arab world.
The character of 21st-century Middle East is being written in today’s turbulent Egypt.