Egypt is deeply divided over this week’s dramatic events, with both sides claiming to be the guardians of democratic legitimacy and the inheritors of the revolution.
The risks of a civil war are limited by the fact that the military has a clear monopoly on force - unless splits emerge within the army itself.
The Brotherhood knows that if it switches strategy towards a violent uprising, it will lose legitimacy and give the army reason to crush it. But there could be splinter groups seeking weapons from Sinai or Libya; an apparently new Islamist group, Ansar Al Sharia, has already put its name to an online call for fighters. The Brotherhood will hope this latest twist is a temporary reversal, like the various coups Turkey has been through. However, if the Brotherhood draws from this experience the lesson that the ballot box won’t work - rather than lessons about the need to build consensus beyond their political base - that could potentially encourage some to favour force. Ominously, the military has already arrested Morsi and other Brotherhood figures, and a witchhunt could backfire.
The jubilant crowds celebrating the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi like to say that this was not a coup, but the military helping enforce the will of a majority of the population who were opposed to the increasingly autocratic and incompetent rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. For his part, Morsi has emphasised that he has democratic legitimacy as the first elected president of Egypt, just one year into his time in office. His opponents counter that there is more to democracy than majority rule, echoing the debates at the time of the French and American revolutions about the need for checks and balances on government to avoid the “tyranny of the majority”.
For now, the legal checks and balances are deficient, especially since the army has suspended the country’s new post-revolution constitution, which makes this a military coup by definition, even if it was popularly acclaimed. The constitution was controversial; it was largely written and approved by Islamists, whose opponents boycotted both the drafting process and the subsequent referendum in which it was approved with a turnout of less than a third. The Brotherhood’s critics accuse them of seeking to dominate every aspect of the political process, with an arrogant, ideologically motivated disregard for criticism or consensus, while the Brotherhood argues their critics have refused to participate in the political process and have never really accepted that they lost the post-revolution elections.
But the Brotherhood, which clearly believes it is the natural party of government, was never an absolute majority. For a brief while, it benefitted from the fact that the opposition to its rule was fragmented by its political diversity, inexperienced, and disorganised. But that opposition has been galvanised by a grassroots anti-Brotherhood campaign, Tamarrod, which, like the anti-Mubarak campaign before it, has united disparate groups with utterly different political priorities behind a single rallying cry of opposition to the president. They argue the Brotherhood was arrogant, high handed, mismanaged the economy, and sought to impose their interpretation of Islam through creeping cultural changes. There had been protests at Cairo’s main theatre for weeks, while court cases against popular comedian Bassem Youssef, “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” for “insulting the president” made Egypt’s new rulers seem not only authoritarian, but humourless. It was not simply a religious versus secular divide; while Egyptian Christians were naturally wary of the Brotherhood, a variety of very religious Egyptian Muslims also felt patronised by politicians telling them how to follow their religion. Perhaps most importantly, economic problems added to the discontent, notably recent fuel shortages and persistent inflation and unemployment.
The main formal opposition group aligned with Tamarrod is the National Salvation Front, an umbrella grouping of non-Islamist parties, headed by broadly secular and liberal figures who garnered additional support from many of the original young revolutionaries of 2011, from the trade unions, and, interestingly, from some of Morsi’s rival Islamists, the more puritanical Salafists Muslims of the Al-Nour party, who have a strong support base among the working class and judged they’d benefit from early elections given the poor state of the economy. This variety of disparate groups is likely to be represented in a diverse transitional government, except for the youth revolutionaries, who generally lack political parties.
Once parliamentary elections eventually happen, the likelihood is that they will produce a fragmented coalition, with the army not ruling directly but acting as the kingmaker in the background. But the Brotherhood remains the single most popular political force, even if it is a minority - and it is not going away.
Since the fall of Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has gone through a combination of a revolution and a “negotiated transition”, a kind of transition away from authoritarian rule also seen in Spain, Chile and much of Latin America, where political leaders make deals to avoid the potential bloodiness of a full scale revolution or civil war. Thus, in closed rooms in Cairo, army and political party leaders talked regularly, and often accommodated each other, though pressure from protests and public opinion were taken more seriously than in the past. The Brotherhood were well aware of the example of Algeria in the 1990s, when the military took power on the eve of an Islamist election victory, precipitating a civil war, and wanted to avoid direct confrontation; thus, Morsi replaced some of the top generals, who were anyway close to retirement, but did not try to rein in the army’s economic privileges, or to prosecute military officers for human rights abuses. Morsi even appointed General Sissi, the army chief who was later to announce his overthrow.
The process was never entirely stable, and each side made power grabs at different times - including Morsi’s decision in November 2012 to put himself and his constitutional committee above the law, which, it is now clear, was overreach (his approval ratings fell immediately). But no single force - the Brotherhood, military, or disparate groups of opposition - has had ability to clearly dominate politics on their own. It is now Tamarrod that has formed an accommodation with the military. And while the military has demonstrated its power again, it was only able to do so with wider political backing - and will need to keep an eye on public opinion in the months to come. Of course its power would have been far better checked if the groups opposing the brotherhood had been able to kick them out through the ballot box
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the next government is that the economic problems will continue, as political uncertainty deters tourists and investors, and as it becomes increasingly hard to sustain the costs of wages and subsidies for a fast-growing and poor population facing high unemployment and inflation. The Brotherhood made some bad decisions, especially on tourism, but it also appointed technocrats and courted investors. Its critics are likely to find it equally difficult to fight corruption, to exert control over the behemoth that is the Egyptian bureaucracy, and to re-inspire investor confidence in the Arab world’s largest country.