In Egypt, nobody wanted military intervention, yet nobody believed in a smooth transition to democracy. For this reason, Egyptians viewed the military as the guarantor of order and stability, albeit they hoped to avoid another military coup. When it actually came on July 5, 2013, it reinforced the incontrovertible fact of many prior great transitions: a nation’s historical sins, embodied in the acts of its previous despots, tyrants and dictators, always come back to haunt their successors.
Egypt, like many other Arab countries throughout 2011, was in political ferment. Hosni Mubarak, the long serving president was overthrown, put on trial for treason and sentenced to life in prison. The military that assumed power opted to schedule elections prior to drafting a new constitution.
The impressive display of unity in Tahrir Square hid a fatal shortcoming of the mostly secular opposition, its lack of leadership. Conversely, the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood was well organized under the firm leadership of committed Islamists. First, the Muslim Brotherhood nominated Khairat Al Shater, its chief strategist, as the presidential candidate. Following massive outbursts of opposition to his radical Islamists views, the Muslim Brotherhood relented and nominated another veteran leader of the movement, Mohammad Morsi.
Narrowly elected on May 24, 2012, Morsi immediately ordered the reinstatement of the Islamist-dominated parliament, dissolved weeks earlier by the Supreme Constitutional Court. On July 10, 2012, the court annulled Morsi’s decision. Morsi, in turn, backed down. Morsi’s most controversial act came on November 22, 2012, when he signed a constitutional declaration granting the president dictatorial powers. Amidst loud outcries and massive demonstrations Morsi again relented. However, a new Islamic constitution, drafted exclusively by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and approved by a minority of the voting population, went into effect at the end of December.
Meanwhile, the economy, in a fairly good shape under Mubarak, flirted with bankruptcy by the gross incompetence of the president and members of his cabinet. The government that was functioning before, became dangerously paralyzed on the national, regional and local levels by the appointments of Muslim Brotherhood loyalists without any real experience in governing. The judiciary was totally ignored, as Morsi made all his decisions and laws above judicial oversight. Security deteriorated. Islamic fanatics harassed, beat up and murdered Christians, Shias and members of other minorities with impunity. To add insult to injury, Morsi embarked on a foreign policy that embraced radical Jihadists and terrorists throughout the Islamic world, thus alienating Egypt’s long-standing allies.
The end to this catastrophic incompetence, opportunistic exploitation of the people’s longing for democracy, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s uncompromising striving for the establishment of the ideal Islamic state, the caliphate, came very quickly. A movement, formed only in April by five young Egyptians, and named Tamarod, meaning “Rebel” in Arabic, gained momentum with lightening speed. By June 30, 2013, on the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, they gathered twenty two million signatures against the continuation of his presidency. On the same day, mass demonstrations throughout Egypt, running into the tens of millions, rocked the entire country. In order to prevent a steep descent into anarchy, and with ninety four percent approval rating, the military decided to intervene. On June 1, 2013, the military gave Morsi forty eight hours to resolve his conflict with the opposition. Morsi’s answer was a defiant and unequivocal no. Thus, on July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Minister of Defense and Chief of the Army Staff, announced the removal of Morsi from the presidency and the suspension of the Islamic constitution. Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, was named interim president. On July 9, 2013, President Mansour appointed Hazem el-Beblawi as the head of the interim government. The court was also charged with issuing a new electoral law to allow early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Clearly, the lion’s share of the responsibility for the current political turmoil that has pushed Egypt to the brink of civil war lies with the Muslim Brotherhood. The enormity of the protests – most of the estimates claim that as many as thirty five million took to the streets – have demonstrated the extent of discontent with Morsi and his fellow travelers. His popularity plummeted below twenty percent. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support is limited to its hard core that hovers around twenty five percent. The overwhelming majority of the country is completely disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies and utterly rejects its governmental incompetence.
Since Morsi was elected with the votes of those who actually did not favor him, but by having supported him voted against the revival of the Mubarak regime, he led a minority government that excluded the majority from the political decision making process. His and the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that they won the elections, does not justify authoritarian rule. True democracy does not reside in a single act of nationwide elections. Neither does any degree of electoral majority entitle the head of state to destroy checks and balances and other political constraints that are designed to limit the powers of elected officials and protect the basic rights of citizens, the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the media.
Yet, beyond a well-written constitution, functioning institutions and a free media, real democracy can only be established and made to endure in a society in which elected politicians are committed to respect the rule of law and the right to opposition. The United States of America, above all the other nations, must understand the difference between real and a sham democracy. Absent such an understanding, American will be prone to mistake the glittering lights of dictatorship for democracy. The truth is that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to establish, under the guise of democracy, an absolutely anti-democratic, Islamic-Fascist state. Against such an outcome did the Egyptian people take to the streets. The real issue for the future is whether the democratic ideals could become a defining part of the Egyptians national mentality. It will be the new government’s responsibility to manage wisely the relationships among the various political, religious and ethnic groups. The task is not easy but doable, if only the new leaders will respect differences in opinions, act in the national interests, and not just those who agree with them.