Egypt: the return of the generals and the future of transition

The mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood in monopolising the constitution drafting process and decision making processes precipitated the intervention of the military. The task now is to prevent further polarisation and the threat of violent conflict.

Kevin Koehler
12 July 2013

What just happened in Egypt? If we believe Nobel laureate and opposition spokesman Mohamed El-Baradei, the sacking of President Morsi by the Egyptian military on the evening of July 3 2013 represents the ‘relaunching of the January 25 revolution,’ an interpretation that is supported by the images reaching us from Tahrir Square that show celebrations reminiscent of those after the fall of Mubarak. But this time around there are other voices as well. On Al Jazeera, the Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) Mohamed al-Beltagi was eager to point out that this was a fully-fledged military coup that threatened to nip Egypt’s nascent democracy in the bud, a theme that members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood – including Mohamed Morsi himself—have not tired of reiterating.

The truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle: the Egyptian generals did not intervene to take power for themselves. The first year after the fall of Mubarak in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over power showed quite clearly that the Egyptian military is both technically unable to govern and lacks the ideological motivation or political interests necessary to do so. They only hesitantly took over the reins in 2011 and they learned their lesson since. Add to this the pressure coming from the US with President Obama asking the military to return to the barracks as soon as possible and simultaneously announcing that US assistance to Egypt—the bulk of which directly fills the coffers of the armed forces—will have to be reconsidered. These factors together suffice to make the Egyptian military unwilling to govern directly. And the generals don’t have to govern either. They are content with calling the shots in the background just as they did in 2011 and again in the last days.

Does this mean that there was no military coup in Egypt? By no means. A military coup occurs when the armed forces take the initiative to replace a sitting chief executive. Whether the next incumbent will be a member of the armed forces or not is inconsequential, and whether there is mass mobilisation calling for such a step is as well. If the armed forces set an ultimatum to the president, if they then deploy armoured vehicles to the streets of the capital upon the expiration of this ultimatum, if they capture the state television building, put the sitting president under de facto house arrest, and announce the suspension of the constitution and the appointment of an interim president, how would we call this if not a military coup? Marwan Bishara neatly summarised the matter on Al Jazeera: “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Don't go looking for snakes...

How did we get here? The situation that enabled the military to intervene was in the making for at least a year, arguably even since the fall of Mubarak. Egypt recently experienced levels of polarization that are just unsustainable over the long run and Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood bear a large portion of the responsibility for this situation. The original sin occurred when after the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood strategically aligned with the military, supporting the constitutional referendum of March 2011 and pushing for elections before a new constitution. With this they contributed to splitting the anti-Mubarak ‘movement’ and squandered the chance of establishing a broadly based consensus to undergird the transitional period. In essence, the Muslim Brotherhood were putting their own strategic interests ahead of any interest in securing a sustainable and consensual transitional process. They were practically guaranteed to win elections, and the earlier such elections would be held, the larger their margin of victory promised to be. The Muslim Brotherhood succumbed to this temptation, failing to understand the difference between constitution making with its requirements of inclusiveness and consensus, and policy making in which a clear majority is sufficient. The constitutional process itself cemented this pattern. The Muslim Brotherhood monopolised the decision making in this process, not necessarily formally, but certainly by insisting that its electoral successes in the parliamentary elections of 2011/2012 and later in the presidential elections legitimised a majoritarian approach to constitution making. This approach that bordered on authoritarianism culminated in Morsi’s ‘constitutional declaration’ of November 2012.

On the other side of the fence this pushed the secular opposition into the arms of the military. This was already the case much before the events of the last days. Many were tempted by the military’s flirtation with the idea of ‘supra-constitutional principles’ in summer and autumn 2011; the various constitutional declarations by the military in its power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood were not resisted by secular groups (although they were not less undemocratic than Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional declaration). In short, faced with a situation in which they could not win elections against the Islamists, the secular opposition turned toward the only force that could help them attaining power despite their weakness, which is the military. There were calls for a military coup already weeks ago (admittedly in an anti-Muslim Brotherhood newspaper). With this the secular opposition is now repeating the mistake made by the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution: they are aligning with the military because they think the military has the same interests.  While it now appears that the opposition got what they wanted, it remains to be seen if they really want what they will get.

What motivates the military? This is probably the trickiest question of all. Concern about political instability and polarisation is part of the equation and the rhetoric of the army in this regard is not purely fake. On the other hand, the military wants to make sure that it can safeguard their own institutional interests. They did so under Morsi with several constitutional provisions guaranteeing their independence, so this part of their political agenda was never directly under threat. Despite the fact that Morsi seemed to have gained some ground in his struggle with the generals when he sent Field Marshall Tantawi and his deputy Sami Anan into retirement in August 2012, the military made sure that its autonomy from the political leadership remained untouched. Still, the generals are likely to gain from their renewed coup. They established themselves as the ultimate arbiters of political processes in Egypt. This almost certainly will be their role for years to come and no one will be able—or worse still, willing—to seriously challenge this position. There will be no general in the presidency, maybe there even won’t be changes to the relevant constitutional provisions. It will simply be understood that the military protects the ‘national interest’ and that it can decide whether some political group or other does or does not follow the ‘will of the people’ or goes against the ‘objectives of the great revolution of 25 January.’ Despite their best intentions, the people protesting in Tahrir removed a threat to democratic development that came from Morsi’s super-majoritarian conception of democracy and replaced it with another which will be even harder to remove.

The main challenge ahead will be to avoid further polarisation and the threat of violent conflict. To achieve this it will be pivotal to include the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process. This is not an easy challenge. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood at least rhetorically follows a confrontational strategy, sticking to the line that constitutional legitimacy is the only way forward. While this line seems to have been overtaken by events, efforts will have to be made to convince the Muslim Brotherhood that participation in the political process is indeed worthwhile. If the Islamist movement faces the threat of military intervention each time it wins elections, there will be little incentives for them to participate in the first place. What is needed is thus an institutional framework, a set of principles that effectively lowers the stakes of political competition. Such a fundamental agreement on the rules of the game should have ideally been devised immediately after the fall of Mubarak. Let us hope for Egypt that it is not too late to find such a compromise.

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