After the Egyptian Coup

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The demonstrations may be larger this time, but Egyptian society is far more divided than it was during the revolution two years ago. It is essential for the transition to be inclusive.
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Only days after millions poured into the streets of Cairo to protest Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, the military stepped in to remove Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. Backed by widespread popular support, the military suspended the constitution and named Adli Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, interim president until fresh elections can be held.

In a Q&A, Nathan J. Brown analyzes Morsi’s fall and the prospects for democracy in Egypt. Brown says that society is far more divided than after the revolution two years ago, making it even harder for leaders to avoid the same mistakes. The transition to democracy must be inclusive and the process of building a new system must be taken seriously.

Is Egypt experiencing a repeat of the revolution against Mubarak in 2011?

In some ways, yes. There is widespread popular mobilization and a military that moves in to depose a president.

There were more demonstrators this time around, but they are a bit less diverse—the Muslim Brotherhood was a victim of this revolution rather than a participant. Society is far more polarized than it was back in the spring of 2011. And this time, the police claim to be on the side of the people.

What were Morsi's failings as president?

Morsi had three stand-out failings.

First, he made a strategic miscalculation—though perhaps an understandable one—when he decided that the opposition would moan and groan but could not really obstruct him. Instead of addressing the people’s concerns, he focused on various parts of the state apparatus by reaching a modus vivendi with the military, placating the security services, outmaneuvering the judges, and attempting to gradually subdue the bureaucracy. He clearly overestimated his ability to play this game and underestimated the opposition.

Second, he was unable—almost constitutionally unable, it seems—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.

Were there other factors that drove people into the streets, precipitating the coup?

In addition to his tactical and strategic flaws, Morsi did not have many policy achievements. For most Egyptians, conditions got worse during his presidency.

Some of this was his fault (he never acted decisively), some was not (he had only imperfect control over the levers of state), and some would have afflicted any president. But after a year in office, most Egyptians blamed Morsi in a startlingly personal way.

Who will be the main decisionmakers in the coming weeks and months?

The military is in the driver’s seat. It has produced a road map for the coming transition that appears to be more of a loophole than an actual text. 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. However, there is not any talk right now of reopening the terms set down for the military in the now-suspended 2012 constitution (which gave the military the autonomy it wanted).

The Brotherhood was accused by its critics of cutting a deal with the military. Now those same critics are cutting the same deal. The military will likely remain in control over the short term and lurk in the wings after the constitution is amended and restored.

This is not to say that civilian actors are irrelevant. Those appointed to the cabinet and to the panel to draft constitutional amendments will be critical, but the military has not hinted at any names or indicated how they will be selected.

As elections take place—and the military has promised them quickly—the established non-Islamist groups who lost out to the Brotherhood in past votes may make a comeback. The youth leaders of the Tamarrud (Rebel) 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.

And of course there are all kinds of state institutions—the judiciary and the security apparatus—that will likely play a role as well in what happens next.

But the popular coup does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is out of the game. Brotherhood leaders can still have an effect on events by deciding whether and in what ways they will resist the coup. Ultimately, however, the Salafis may come out as a long-term winner, using the blow to the Brotherhood to move to the fore in among the Islamist segment of the population.

What do leaders need to do to stabilize the country and build a sustainable democracy?

Egypt can learn from its recent mistakes, though it may not. 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.

How should the international community react?

This is primarily a domestic struggle, and outside actors are limited in what they can do. If external actors can find a way to deliver a strong message in support of consensual politics and against attempts to suppress the Brotherhood, those would be positive steps.

How will events in Egypt impact other Arab countries?

Over the short term, this will cheer up some and depress others. But Morsi’s fall won’t have much of a direct impact (except on Hamas, which was counting on having a friendly leader in next-door Egypt).

The real impact may be over the longer term. The coup might convince some Islamists that they will never win power through the political process. That would be a dangerous conclusion but not an unexpected one for some groups.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (16)

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  • Ragui
    Your insistence on calling it a coup reveals a simplistic mindset. This military action followed one of the largest, mostly peaceful civic actions in the history of humanity. Why is this so difficult to fathom?
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    • Paul A. Ballard replies...
      Surely recent events show it was anything but peaceful? And surely, arresting and denying habeas corpus rights to all the leaders of the party that won the election is a fundamental breach of the rule of law? And to say the civic action was large and therefore representative of ALL Egyptians seems highly doubtful. What of all the tens of millions of rural Egyptians - who voted for the Moslem Brotherhood but were of course not in Cairo or Alexandria demonstrating? This was by any definition a military coup by an opportunistic military that wanted to keep its privileges and secular forces that misplayed their hands in the elections - too many candidates - lost, and then could not accept to lose. Democracy when it's mature means accepting defeat too and working with the other side. Egypt's self-professed "democrats" need to learn that!
  • CHForbesSr
    1 Recommend
    Is it possible for Egypt to adopt the idea of a religiously tolerant society that forbids any state sponsored or state funded religion, as in the U.S.? In the U.S. Constitution this has the full force of law, in unequivocal terms, in the Bill of Rights. Egypt has the Coptic Christians, and has had a Jewish minority also from ancient times. Religious freedom guaranteed under the law could establish an especially valuable principle in Egyptian politics.
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  • brindy
    1 Recommend
    Coups are sudden and violent. This is neither. By definition, it is more like a revolution.
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    • Gamal S. Ahmed, PhD. replies...
      Bringy, that is right it is second revolution towards bad performance and look forward to justice for all Egyptian people not only for BROTHERHOOD.
      Thanks, best
      Gamal S. Ahmed.
  • Gaurav
    I think Egypt needs a constitution which even if does not satisfy any group completely, it should not alienate any of them completely. Cant just leave anyone aside while building a nation.
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  • Borderline
    Mr. Morsi has been ousted. Nevertheless, most Egyptians still think that democracy is the ticket to freedom and prosperity, and that sooner or later this prosperity will trick it down to the lower levels of society. This is true for countries with a strong economic base, and definitely not so true for a great majority of nations who despite long democratic traditions and established democratic institutions prosperity has been absent for the poor. Egypt has the oldest and richest civilization on the face of the earth with a forever aspiration for democratic ideals, and yet, it has an incredible abysm between the rich and the poor. The lack of opportunity for young Egyptians has proved to be an engine behind the initial revolution. Notwithstanding, right after Mr. Morsi inauguration, discontent erupted and never abated long enough to get it out of the newspaper’s front pages. This activity may have been fabricated or not but Mr. Morsi never had a chance to succeed. My crystal ball tell me that in a few months another fracas will be staged to speed up elections and go back to civilian rule. After that the Muslin Brotherhood will stage a much larger fracas to show their unhappiness; the tired Egyptians will finally realize that the son of former President Mubarak would have done better, do you get my twist? –going from fracas to fracas may be the worse form of democracy. The Egyptians religious lines are trouble enough, yet, young Egyptians are impatient and wish changes right away. In democracy patience is essential and tolerance is a required virtue. Otherwise, we would never be rewarded with the promise that comes with democracy. The Egyptians should agree to get back to work hard, and re- build first tourism which is their main staple. Second, build a sustainable and strong economic foundation coupled with the rule of law and a diverse and open political society. Fracas aside, it is always the case that democracy find roots when people have a job and live in peace and freedom with equal and abundant opportunities for all.
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  • Gamal S. Ahmed
    Dear professor, in fact it isn't coup but moving forward to second revolution, Egyptian requirement, and best performance for all Egyptian people, thanks for your interest professor. All the best
    Gamal S. Ahmed, PhD.
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  • professor galal from Egypt
    Dear Professor and Carnegei endowment it is a pity not to differeniatate between the revoultion of 33 million demonastarting in Cairo Streets again a failed dictator ruler and a coup d etate by military The Egyptia Army is a national one not like other armies that kill their people .The Egyptian army step in revolution of Jan 25,2011 and American politician andScolars did not call it a coup though militray was in power directly while this time military step downwhen he saw the 33 egyptian milions demonstrating in the streets agains a party of religious orientations that behave against the unity of the Egyptian people as muslim and christian .They interpret religious according to their political orientation .Please review your think a militrary coup in Egypt is not the proper name for the events in Egypt it is a revolution again a failed president with broken promise and misry of the people and insecurity allover the country.
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  • Paul A. Ballard
    Dear Dr. Brown,    It troubles me a lot you seem quite so sanguine about what has occurred. This after all was a military coup that toppled a democratically elected government.

    To argue that Pres. Morsi's government had failings doesn't gainsay that in any way. In the USA we have a U.S. Congress with a ten per cent approval rating. In the past we have often had U.S. Presidents whose governments have been viewed as not inclusive by their opponents. Would you consider this could in any way justify a coup by the Pentagon and Chief Justice Roberts?

    I am also not sure who exactly are "Islamists" ? In the USA and other Western countries we seem to merrily bandy this term about. And when we do it always implies "extremists" - almost "terrorists" ? As a result it implicitly justifies suppressing democracy to suppress them?

    But in reality, isn't the situation in Egypt far more complicated? There is no easy catch-all group called "Islamists". So why confuse matters by using it?

    For in the Egyptian countryside there are many millions of rural - often poor, less educated - Egyptians who are devout Muslims whose faith inevitably informs their politics (as it does for many rural Americans?).

    These are not "extremists". But they did vote in large numbers for the Moslem Brotherhood - in recognition of the decades of public services it provided when the Egyptian government services were too corrupt to do so.

    To cavalierly exclude such people from the political process, which is what the Egyptian military and secular urban groups have done, is not democracy, surely? And if we stand by and accept that, we are not in reality fully standing up for our own principles as democrats.

    Maybe "What's Wrong with Kansas" is the Moslem Brotherhood ?

    Egypt needs a truly inclusive political process. This requires both the so-called secular forces and the military as well as the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafists to accept the rules of the process. By ditching the process when the outcome in the short run was not to their liking, the secular forces and the military have shown immense bad judgment and a lack of commitment to the democracy they purport to profess.
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  • Cw
    Brilliant article
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    The divide we see today is about Egypt's identity and future. It has always been there, and has never been resolved. Current events have finally brought this issue to the surface. Whereas Islamic forces are calling for an Islamic Republic, secular forces are calling for a modern and tolerant democracy. Egypt's identity is at stake.   
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  • Mike
    There is no doubt that it was a coup, but that is not important the problem is the Muslim brotherhood get a message the regardless what u do your voice wont be heard. Which might direct them to a more violent way to be heard
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  • انهار الرؤية لعملية سلام
    حتما اذا لم يكن لاي رئيس رؤية سياسية مبنيا على الائسس الاستراتيجية سوف يكون طريق امامة صعب . لذلك    هناك عقود من زمن لحكم تسلط قد تغلغل في كيان كل نفس . ومثلما يظهر نتائج على الارض هي عكس الرؤية التي كان من مفروض تطبيقها من اجل عملية سلام اصبح هناك مسافة طويلة حتى ان تتحقق عملية سلام
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  • ahmos
    the only problem with this proposed that the islamists only want an Islamic state ,dominated by islamists and imposing sharia law on the country!
    the secularists, the educated, most women,christians,the judiciary,the press,and just about every other group of Egyptians want a civil society and a civilian government. Not a religious one.
    so could there ever be reconciliation between these two opposites?
    I say no. separation of mosque and state is the only way a society can survive and compete.and oppressive religious theocracy will always be a failure.(hello iran)!
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