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Experts: Looking Beyond Egypt's Latest Revolution

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

A supporter holds a poster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi with Arabic that reads, "Sisi traitor," during a rally, in Nasser City, Cairo, Egypt, July 4, 2013.

A supporter holds a poster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi with Arabic that reads, "Sisi traitor," during a rally, in Nasser City, Cairo, Egypt, July 4, 2013.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, took office on June 30, 2012, only to be deposed by the military after barely completing his first year in office. Backed by widespread popular support, the military suspended the constitution and named Adly Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, interim president until fresh elections can be held.

While many experts believe the military will likely remain in control over the short term and continue influencing events behind the scenes after the constitution is amended and restored, others question whether the military intervention has already undermined the country’s longer term prospects for popular democratic rule.

“[The military] has produced a road map for the coming transition that appears to be more of a loophole than an actual text,” says Nathan Brown, Senior Associate, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But behind it seems to be a desire among most civilian actors that the military will manage the process in a way that restores civilian rule.”

But Sahar Aziz, associate professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law and a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, calls military governance the death knell of democracy, irrespective of the military’s purportedly good intentions.

“Not only are initial promises of short-term rule quickly broken,” she says, “but the military is simply unqualified to govern a nation of more than 80 million people, of whom about 25 percent live below the poverty line.”

But as elections take place — and the military has promised to organize them quickly — Brown says established non-Islamist groups who lost out to the Brotherhood in past votes may be aiming to make a comeback.

“The youth leaders of the Tamarrud [’Rebellion’] campaign that sought Morsi’s ouster will be major players over the longer term as well, if they can maintain some level of popular mobilization and devise a political strategy,” he says, adding that Brotherhood leaders can still have an effect on events by deciding whether and in what ways they will resist the coup.

“Ultimately, however, the conservative Islamists ‘Salafis’ may come out as a long-term winner, using the blow to the Brotherhood to move to the fore among the Islamist segment of the population,” he says.

Egyptian society is far more divided than after the revolution two years ago, Brown notes, warning that the transition to democracy must be inclusive and the process of building a new government taken seriously.

Asked what are the primary political lessons from 2011, Brown says Morsi’s aborted presidency was marked by several key errors.

“First, he made a strategic miscalculation when he decided that the opposition would moan and groan but could not really obstruct him,” says Brown. “Second, he was unable to reach Egyptians outside of his base.Even when he tried, his language alienated those he tried to attract. And third, he handled his final crisis poorly. Morsi had an almost impeccable sense of offering the wrong speech at the wrong time.

“Morsi did not have many policy achievements,” he says. “For most Egyptians, conditions got worse during his presidency.”

Aziz, however, says the most important lesson for all current and future politicians is that Egyptians have been forever changed by the 2011 revolution.

“No longer will they be used as pawns by political leaders, even if democratically elected, who engage in illegal governance tactics,” she says.

Will Morsi’s ouster change Islamist tactics?

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived rule of Egypt has already cheered as many as it has dismayed, the real impact of its sudden deposition may be yet to be seen for quite some time.

“The coup might convince some Islamists that they will never win power through the political process,” says Brown/ “That would be a dangerous conclusion but not an unexpected one for some Islamist groups.”

For Khaled Fahmy, Chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo,the Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest mistake was a disastrous reading of the political situation. He suggests the Islamist movement wrongly perceived that winning free and fair elections was what the revolution was all about, and thereby insisted on a winner-takes-all approach, failing to give the opposition credible and meaningful concessions or to include its members in the government.

“People did not take to the streets in Jan-Feb 2011 and risk their lives only to have free and fair elections,” says Fahmy. “And they were not willing to go back home because someone won the presidential elections, until they made sure that this individual appeared to be answering their main demands.”

A new policy challenge for the U.S.

Dennis Ross, former special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama and senior director of the Central Region on the National Security Council staff, says that while the United States has limited influence in shaping events in Egypt, it has a stake in what happens there.

“The last thing we want is for Egypt to become a failed state — a reality that would threaten stability in the wider Middle East,” he says. “With conspiracy always rife in Egypt and suspicions of us running deeply, we need to stand on key principles and not for any group or party in Egypt. President Obama had that right in his statement in response to the military's removal of Morsi.”

Obama called on the Egyptian military to respect the rights “of all Egyptian men and women” in the aftermath of Morsi’s removal from power.

“The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties —secular and religious, civilian and military,” the statement read.

According to The New York Times, the United States provides Egypt’s military $1.3 billion in aid annually.

For now, Ross says, the U.S. should emphasize the need for a credible political transition that sets a date for new presidential elections; provides for an inclusive approach to the writing of a new constitution; creates ground rules for the election that exclude only those committed to violence; calls on all parties to refrain from violence and ostracizes those who commit it; and that encourages the interim administration to tackle economic needs and not defer dealing with them until after elections.

Experts agree that it is too soon to know whether what has happened in Egypt can move the country in a more hopeful direction.

“In the end, it is Egyptians that have the most to gain from lessons learned and the most to lose for mistakes made,” says Aziz. “The obvious lesson to be learned from the one year Morsi term is that leaders need to be inclusive, with a “no victor, no vanquished” approach, take procedural questions more seriously in deciding how to reconstruct the political system, and learn how to manage their differences.”

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