Egypt Unmoored

Why freedom is anything but certain for the conflict-torn country.

egyptians-call-for-the-ouster-of-islamist-president-mohamed-morsi-during-protests-on-june-30On July 3, 2013 – the eve of our own Independence Day celebration - millions of Egyptians who had protested in the streets against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime of President Mohammed Morsi last weekend got their wish. The Egyptian military followed through on its threat and removed Morsi from power, as the protesters demanded. The military had given Morsi 48 hours to enter into meaningful reconciliation talks with the opposition. Morsi ignored the ultimatum and gave a defiant speech instead.

The armed forces also suspended the unpopular constitution that Morsi and his Islamist allies had rammed through, which the opposition considered a dangerous blueprint for the institution of strict Islamic law on the Egyptian people and for the trampling of minority rights. Pending new presidential elections, which could take several months to set up, the military named the chief justice of Egypt’s constitutional court as interim president and announced the formation of a technocratic government.

At a press conference following the official announcement of Morsi’s removal, General Abdul Fatah Khalil Al-Sisi outlined a roadmap that he claimed would “put an end to the state of division” besetting the country. Emphasizing the military’s stated objective of inclusive civilian rule rather than a return to a military dictatorship, General Al-Sisi surrounded himself with top Muslim and Christian clerics as well as the Nobel Prize Laureate, diplomat and secularist leader Mohamed El-Baradei.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, filled with anti-Morsi protesters, erupted in celebration at the news of Morsi’s ouster with loud cheers and continuous fireworks.

In another part of Cairo, however, Islamist backers of Morsi cried foul at the forcible removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president and vowed to fight for Morsi’s restoration to power. Clashes have already been reported between Morsi supporters and the military.

As for Morsi himself, he has reportedly been under house arrest and cut off from outside communications. However, he managed to issue a statement to his supporters decrying what he called a “complete military coup.” While declaring that the “revolution is being stolen from us,” he finally offered to sit down and “negotiate with everybody.” But it was too little too late.

The military was taking no chances and moved preemptively to detain many of Morsi’s senior aides and some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the chief of its political party.

Civil war cannot be ruled out as a possible outcome, although there is a split within the Islamist ranks. The ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party leadership decided to stand with the military and endorse its action. They apparently sensed an opportunity to position the Salafist party as a credible Muslim alternative to its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, by winning favor with the military and the opposition at the same time.

Dire predictions that Egypt could go down the same path as Syria are premature. First of all, unlike the situation in Syria where Sunni-Shiite hatreds are fueling the deadly sectarian conflict, such sectarian divisions are not expected to play a major role in Egypt. Secondly, while the entry of foreign jihadist fighters into Egypt cannot be ruled out, Saudi Arabia – which has helped bankroll the arming of the jihadist opposition to the Syrian regime – has already congratulated Egypt’s new transitional head of state. Third, defections from the Egyptian military are less likely than those experienced by the Syrian military, at least so long as the Egyptian army does not turn its guns on wide portions of the Egyptian civilian population.

The military claims that it does not want to rule the country and only intervened as a last resort to carry out the expressed will of the people. More likely, the truth is that the military intervened when it realized that the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government would continue to escalate and threaten the semblance of national stability that the military depends on to preserve its own privileged status in Egyptian society.

“Egypt’s military leaders are not ideologically committed to one thing or the other,” said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, as quoted by the New York Times. “They are willing to make a deal with virtually anyone, and this one didn’t work out, clearly,” he added, referring to the failure of the Morsi regime to maintain relative domestic peace and to improve the disastrous economy.

Another expert, Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, agreed with this assessment of the military’s agenda, according to the New York Times. He said that the military does not want the responsibility of being the “front-line actors” on the political stage. They have seen how quickly the people will turn on whomever is very visibly running the government if economic and political conditions are not to their liking. The military, Hanna said, “just want things to settle down.”

President Barack Obama once again demonstrated his fecklessness in dealing with the volatile Middle East. Appearing to hold out the possibility of a lifeline of sorts to the Morsi regime, Obama said he was "deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian Constitution.”

Obama also said he was ordering an assessment of what the military's action meant for U.S. foreign aid to Egypt. However, he avoided for the moment referring to the military’s action as a “coup” since that explicit label could trigger a statutorily required suspension of American military aid to Egypt.

Obama’s hypocrisy came to the fore when he urged the Egyptian army to refrain from "arbitrary arrests" of Morsi and his supporters. Obama is worried about the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, but showed little concern while Morsi’s government was arbitrarily arresting its opponents and persecuting the Christian minority.

The Obama administration is apparently so upset with the nullification of the democratic election of Morsi as president that it fails to grasp the underlying mass popular forces that led to the nullification. The Arab Spring “revolution” in the streets of Cairo that Obama praised so highly in 2011 reached a more intense phase in the summer of 2013 because the Morsi regime subverted the revolution’s purpose, as articulated by many of its youthful leaders who started the ball rolling – the end of autocracy of all stripes.

Morsi’s rush to impose the Muslim Brotherhood’s rigid concept of Islamic law on the Egyptian people and his government’s trampling on the rights of minorities prevented the rise of viable competing opposition organizations that would be free to make their case to the people in advance of the next round of elections. By removing all checks and balances to his own powers and squelching popular voices of dissent, Morsi was effectively rigging the political system to ensure the dominance of Muslim Brotherhood political power for the long term. That is a subversion of a truly functioning democratic process.

Barack Obama made a tragic mistake in 2009 when he sided with the Iranian mullahs and ignored the pleas for help by waves of Green Revolution dissidents protesting the fraudulent “re-election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president. Now, four years later, Obama is over-solicitous to the Islamists who forfeited their legitimacy by betraying the revolution that helped propel them to power in the first place.

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