Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, signed a new law restricting protests on November 24. Against the backdrop of widespread objections to the law (including within the cabinet), the government asserts that it will help the police maintain stability. A few days earlier, the constitutional committee had approved a draft constitution broadening the powers of the military. It is no coincidence that these steps come at the time when criticism of the military-backed transition is starting to spread.

Marches against the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood–backed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July 2013 have been surprisingly persistent. What’s more, recent conversations in Cairo showed that even secular Egyptians who were happy to see Morsi go were starting to express misgivings about the dominance of the military and internal security in the new arrangement.

Many Egyptians Still With the Plan

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is the director and a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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The dominant narrative among Egypt’s secular elite is that Morsi’s removal, however undemocratically executed, was unavoidable. Many with whom I met last week believed there was now no alternative to allowing the military to call the shots. As the head of one secular political party said, “Once you accept military intervention, you have to play by their rules.” Several noted that for better or worse, most Egyptians are dawlati (statist) and still want the state, which at least for now means the military, to take care of them more than they want it to be accountable to them or to their elected representatives.

Many interlocutors portrayed the ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Freedom and Justice Party might soon be dissolved—as an unfortunate necessity. Former parliamentarian Amr El-Shobaki (now a member of the Constituent Assembly drafting the country’s constitution) said that it had not been possible to integrate the Brotherhood “safely” into political life for two reasons: Egypt had failed to develop ground rules for the political game. And the Egyptian Brotherhood was a “secret society” with an international presence and agenda, which El-Shobaki differentiated from the more successful experience of Islamist political parties in Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco.

A youth activist who supported Morsi’s ouster was one of many others saying that the Brotherhood was somehow un-Egyptian or displayed dual loyalties—both of which are fears being fanned actively by the state media. “Even if in the end the military betrays” the liberals who supported Morsi’s ouster, he said, “we will still be better off than if the Brotherhood had stayed in power; at least we will preserve our national identity.”

Others were more practical in their criticism of the Brotherhood. “They ruined our best chance at democracy because of way they ruled,” said an adviser to the Constituent Assembly. “Now the whole process is surrounded by a thick cloud of doubt and lowered expectations.”

Objections Starting to Surface

But other secular voices are beginning to speak up and differ with the groupthink that emerged after the July 3 coup. In a small but highly symbolic move, young demonstrators defaced a new monument to victims of the revolution that overthrew strongman Hosni Mubarak on November 19. The transitional government had hastily erected the monument in Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution, on the anniversary of clashes with security forces that left 47 dead on Mohamed Mahmoud Street two years ago.

Cairo has also been abuzz with discussion of—and disappointment at—the cancellation of satirist Bassem Youssef’s television program after its first broadcast, in which he poked fun at adulation of Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Dostour Party member Ahmad Harara’s strong comments against military rule on a talk show on November 13 were also much discussed. In private conversations but also increasingly in the media, some politicians and activists are rejecting the binary choice between military and Brotherhood rule, objecting to the ascendancy of the military and the reemergence of the secret police, and voicing dismay at the continuing media focus on demonizing the Brotherhood.

Recent columns by prominent secular commentators were emblematic of the shifting debate. Journalist Amr Khafagy tasked “those who wanted to get rid of Mubarak but not the tools of his rule” with the current morass in a November 20 column in the newspaper al-Shorouk. “All those who wanted to get rid of Mubarak but then to use his tools can never win the revolutionaries’ love or allegiance,” he warned, “because the revolution was against Mubarak and all his tools; and the latter hate the revolution no matter what they might say to the contrary.”

As part of a series of satirical articles entitled “Things I Got Wrong,” former parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy wrote on November 20:

I thought that Egypt could never be renewed by political leaders who adopted a security perspective, gave exceptional powers to the military, and called on military leaders to run for the presidency. I thought it could never be renewed by leaders who knew nothing about politics but the zero sum game of winner versus loser and right versus wrong, or manipulating the people’s religious sentiments in order to get into power and stay there—but I guess I was wrong.

Young Popular Front activist Hossam Munis was more straightforward, writing in al-Masry al-Youm that “whoever wants to honor the legacy of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and keep its spirit alive must act immediately to counteract spreading disappointment and despair . . . to construct an alternative to get Egyptians out of this binary conflict and to deliver them from those who killed their sons.”

In private conversations, Egyptian secularists indicated that there was much division within families about whether military dominance, the return of an invasive internal security apparatus, and the Brotherhood crackdown were necessary. A leftist political leader said that “public opinion is changing quickly and sharply; the pro-coup alliance is deteriorating.” A founder of the Egypt Freedom Party indicated that many secular activists had held back until recently on criticism of the military because “we don’t want to be used again by the Brotherhood as it attempts to get back into power.” But such considerations may be now dissipating.

Does the Military Have the Answers?

On one point many Egyptians seemed to agree: the 2011 revolution expressed a fundamental change in the society. Citizens would not be patient long with a state that failed to deliver services, abused human rights, and monopolized economic benefits. Many also said that the few “democrats” (as they are called, with Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-Din in the lead) in the current transitional cabinet were fighting a noble, uphill battle to inject progressive thinking into government decisionmaking and to protect basic freedoms.

But no one expressed confidence that the current military-democratic alliance would be able to find or implement solutions to Egypt’s mounting economic, social, and security problems. A prominent secular intellectual who has thrown his lot in with the transitional arrangement said he was “not sure how long the military-democratic partnership will last; it is uncomfortable and even nasty, and we are taking it day by day. The big question is whether we can bring anything positive out of it.” A political party leader worried that “we have already lost momentum and failed to create hope, as well as to divert attention from the Brotherhood protests.”

The months ahead will be extremely challenging, with a hectic schedule of political events. The first is the holding of a referendum on the constitution amid continuing and perhaps escalating security and economic problems.

The referendum to pass the new document will be widely seen as a vote on the July 3 coup against Mohamed Morsi, and many said that the military is determined to get better voter turnout and a higher yes vote than the Brotherhood got during the December 2012 constitutional referendum. Then, a total of 18 million voters took to the polls, two-thirds of whom approved the text. There is little prospect that a new referendum would be voted down, but a low turnout would be seen as a sign of weak support for the military-backed transition. The more savvy and well-organized political parties, such as the Salafi al-Nour, are well aware of this fact and are using their presumed ability to mobilize voters (or prevent them from mobilizing) as leverage regarding what the constitution will say on issues important to them.

Beyond immediate issues such as the transition road map, many Egyptians are increasingly concerned about much larger problems: the need to rebuild a crumbling state and the possibility of state failure if urgent problems cannot be addressed for several more years because of political turmoil. Former Shura Council member Sameh Fawzy complained in al-Shorouk that public discourse remains obsessed with the Brotherhood to the detriment of these broader problems, saying “any discussion of rebuilding the state economically, socially, and culturally is absent or at most extremely limited.”

And indeed, there is no evidence of a vision for such rebuilding within the new order, at least so far. A prominent young politician said, “Egyptians trust military officers to save the state, but no one expects them to be able to develop it.” A young researcher confessed his concern that Egypt might be headed for state failure, saying what he saw in neighboring countries frightened him because “I am not sure that we are any better than the Syrians or Libyans.”

November’s Fateful Events

During a conversation with me, Egyptian analyst Mohamed El Agati half-jokingly pointed to the fateful events that have taken place in the month of November for the last few years: Corrupt parliamentary elections in November 2010 sharpened disgust with the Mubarak regime. Killings of protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in 2011 spurred a campaign of resistance against the then ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. And the November 2012 constitutional declaration ignited widespread opposition to Mohamed Morsi.

This year, the set of constitutional articles was approved on November 20 that granted the military broad powers to try civilians in military courts and to veto the president’s choice of defense minister for at least the next eight years. On November 24, the president signed the law restricting rights of protest that gives security agencies like the police the right to disperse protests by force if necessary. It is not yet clear whether these moves will eventually be seen as the same kind of overreach that characterized the last three Novembers. But if the current military leadership proves no more able to address Egypt’s major problems than the Supreme Council of Armed Forces or the Brotherhood was, Egyptians might look back and see the powers they have just given to the military and police in November 2013 as a wall to scale as massive as the stone barriers that now block access from Cairo boulevards to Tahrir Square.