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Egypt after the Coup

Adli Mansour, who became chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court on July 1, 2013, was sworn in as interim president on July 3. (Photo:

Adli Mansour, who became chief justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court on July 1, 2013, was sworn in as interim president on July 3. (Photo:

Recent events in Egypt have been tumultuous, to say the least. The country’s first elected president in history was deposed by the military three days after his first anniversary in office. The International Crisis Group’s description of current Egyptian politics gives the impression of a grand competition in short-sightedness. What happens next will depend on a multitude of factors. Among those will be the ways in which the political parties and activists define the current situation and the way in which they choose to react to the recent coup and to each others’ reactions.* It also depends on how regular Egyptian citizens define the situation, the parties and their own options.

The opposition to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government included a largely spontaneous mass protest movement known as Rebel and an ad hoc coalition of liberal and leftist political parties called the National Salvation Front, which endorsed the protest movement after the fact. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that either of these groups will survive for long in its present form now that the common enemy that drew them together has been deposed.

The members of the National Salvation Front viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a latent totalitarian movement, and every action that the government took was colored by that interpretation. For instance, the staffing of bureaucratic positions with members of the president’s party — which is common in many countries — was seen as subversive infiltration of the state. A key turning point came late last year, when a constitutional assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood rushed to push through a new constitution on its own terms and Morsi declared his own decrees to be beyond the scope of judicial review. This was taken as proof of the government’s basically antidemocratic aims.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, saw the opposition as determined to keep them from enjoying the fruits of government, which they had legitimately won in fair elections. In the category of opposition, they include not only the parties of the National Salvation Front but also the bureaucracy and the judiciary, all still staffed with hostile holdovers from the Mubarak era. On the eve of the presidential election, the Supreme Constitutional Court had shut down the elected parliament, in which the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the largest bloc of seats. Then, after he had been deprived of a parliament, people complained that Morsi was ruling by decree. After that, Morsi was convinced that the Mubarak-era judges were also about to shut down the constitutional assembly, which — he will tell you — was dominated by Islamists because the leftists and the liberals had walked out. Where the opposition saw a totalitarian movement imposing its will on the state, the government’s backers viewed their own leaders as too willing to compromise, too concerned about abiding by the rules, and too reluctant to enforce a true Islamist agenda.

The Western media describe Egypt as a country divided into two confrontational factions, secular and Islamist, but that is not really true. Relations between the National Salvation Front and the Muslim Brotherhood might be described that way, but most of those spontaneous protesters’ complaints focused not on Islamist politics but on economic conditions (economic positions, to be sure, made worse by constant demonstrations as well as by incompetent policies). Polls suggest that 70 percent to 80 percent of Egyptians are sympathetic to Shari’ah law and to the notion of blending religion and politics; they just didn’t like Morsi any more. Al-Nur, the second largest party in the parliament, is a Salafi Islamist party, generally considered well to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the leader of Al-Nur, along with National Salvation Front leaders, was standing next to General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi when he announced the overthrow of the Morsi government. Thus the overall confrontation is not clearly one of secularists against Islamists, unless people choose to make it so.

The question, of course, is what comes next. Many have called for the Muslim Brotherhood to reconcile itself to events, cooperate with the opposition, and help start over with a new constitution and a new government, presumably run by someone else. This is an optimistic call given the likely reservoir of resentment: the army has just overthrown their legitimate government and replaced it with a Mubarak-era judge, issued arrest warrants for literally hundreds of their leaders, and shot 50 of their followers dead during a prayer vigil. That much does not bode well for a future of peaceful politics. Brotherhood leaders could conclude — as many Salafis did long ago — that they will never be permitted to come to power legally. Some have called for an uprising.

The existence of Al-Nur, however, also presents an alternative model. It could lead its own armed rebellion, or it could give Islamist voters an option other than the Muslim Brotherhood and other than armed rebellion. To the extent that Morsi has already discredited himself among voters (and that does seem to be a considerable extent), Al-Nur may well benefit. How the army and the other opposition parties would react to a Salafi Islamist government would be very interesting to see, indeed. They could end up regretting that they put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment in Islamist democracy. So far Al-Nur has been notable for its repeated efforts to bring the sides together, albeit without a great deal of success. It is an open question whether they would sustain that conciliatory approach in power with the opposition arrayed against them instead of against their Islamist rivals.

Thus, as always, the course of future developments will depend on many contingent decisions made by many independent but interacting players. Will the army agree to stop arresting Brotherhood leaders? Will the army allow free and fair elections, whether or not they stick to the highly ambitious six-month schedule just announced? Will the Brotherhood return to electoral politics if allowed or give up and opt for a path of violence? If they choose the path of insurrection, how many people will follow them? Which path will Al-Nur follow? If it follows the electoral path, will it pick up some of the 45 percent of parliamentary seats that the Muslim Brotherhood had as well as its own 25 percent? (Some argue that its extreme positions limit its appeal to a narrower slice of the electorate.) If everyone plays by the rules and adheres to peaceful electoral politics, will the army and the parties of the National Salvation Front permit the Muslim Brotherhood or Al-Nur to form a government and carry out its preferred agenda if it wins? Or would the army react with yet another coup?

*Yes, it was a coup. The fact that U.S. officials have not used the word does not mean that they don’t know what a coup looks like. U.S. law requires our government to withhold financial aid if their army overthrows their government in a coup. Withholding aid from a country in as desperate straits as Egypt, however, would make the situation there even less stable. Thus the Obama administration (like just about any other administration) will resort to convoluted reasoning to suggest that it was something other than a coup rather than to stoke the already chaotic situation in a strategic but fragile ally.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.