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A Continuing Revolution and a ‘Civil Society Coup’


Since April 2013 the Egyptian opposition group,”Tamarod” (rebellion), had been planning peaceful demonstrations to oust their de-legitimized leader, though discontent had been brewing for more than a year under Morsi rule. What transpired in just four days may have exceeded even their expectations.  Egyptians had spoken.  Again.

After two years of waiting for change — for which many sacrificed their lives in the January 25 Revolution of 2011– the opposition saw a government squandering its chance to lead the nation in a new democratic direction.   Having gathered over 22 million signatures, the rebel group reportedly rallied an unprecedented 17 million plus protesters nationwide on June 30th, calling for Morsi’s resignation and early elections.  Whether or not those numbers are accurate, this was a huge show of force.  Military chief, General Abdel-Fattah al Sisi, claims the President was given ample chance to reconcile with opponents and address public demands before the military, acting in its own interests but most importantly at the behest of the people, stepped in.

To some, this appears to be yet another reactionary setback for democracy by an indecisive populace.  I posit that it is no less than a continuation of the unfinished revolution of 2011, which gave Egyptians only a taste of what was possible in a more just and free society. Still in formation, and thereby still lacking the necessary systems of checks and balances of fully functioning democratic institutions, this was a democratic victory hijacked by inept and corrupt authoritarian leadership. Morsi’s government soon resorted to a series of power grabs that rendered it illegitimate in the eyes of the opposition.  In effect, he had already conducted his own ‘coup’ by placing himself and his constituents above judicial review and by attempting to instill a theocracy. Though democratically elected in free and fair elections, he sabotaged his own credibility.  By thwarting the fledgling democratic process, his Freedom & Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) had effectively stamped on its fragile wings before it even took flight.

To be fair, Morsi did not inherit an easy hand – an economy lagging from the ineptitude of a succession of Western-backed dictatorships that spanned six decades, and left behind deeply entrenched institutional problems for which he cannot be blamed.  But despite the reservations of a skeptical electorate, one that gave him only a marginal victory, the democratically elected leader — the first in Egypt’s history — showed promise as a political moderate of his party.  Unlike its more extreme Islamist counterparts, The Muslim Brotherhood has been more pragmatic and politicized since it renounced violence in the 1980s.  Once elected, Morsi successfully brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, promised to maintain the peace accord of 1979 with Israel, and vowed to promote U.S. foreign policy interests.  More importantly he swore to continue the spirit of the revolution and include all groups in his cabinet, including minorities and women.

But while Morsi may have won friends on the international stage, he failed domestically by moving the party in a more Islamist direction.  It seems Egyptians are less inclined to an Islamic state or Shari’a law and more interested in freedom and justice.  Had the Muslim Brotherhood done as it had promised, and led inclusively — as it was ideologically and politically suited to do (unlike the more extreme Salafis) — it may have succeeded.  But by pushing through an illegitimate Islamist constitution, restricting the press, and consolidating power he placed himself above the law and thereby lost legitimacy.  While doing so he failed to address critical economic and social frustrations — poverty, unemployment, fuel shortages, and a failing tourist industry.  Call for ‘Holy Jihad’ in Syria, and appointing mainly Muslim Brotherhood governors, (including Adel Khayat of a former terrorist group) may have been the last straws.  His were not merely a few early mistakes; rather, by failing to lead inclusively he undermined the very democratic principles upon which he was elected.  Counter-protesters object that the opposition has killed democracy, but this overlooks the fact that it was already dead in its tracks.

After a year of betrayal, opposition parties took their issues back to the streets and demanded a reset.  This was not what they struggled for in 2011; overthrowing one dictator only to see him replaced by another.  And given the spirit and determination of the Egyptians it is doubtful they will rest until they realize their aspirations for competent governance.  If the transitioning Arab Spring has shown anything, it is that Arabs throughout the Middle East are ready to forge their own futures.  Gone are the days when dictators can assume power and compliance.  This is a new era with a new generation of disenfranchised yet empowered and resilient individuals looking for long awaited self-determination, and they are realizing it with new set of communication tools at their disposal.  They recognize that in order to correct systemic problems, there needs to be a change in the old system of leadership.

It has been suggested that Egypt is not ready for democracy or that Egyptians do not even want pluralism.  Perhaps these uprisings are indications to the contrary.  As the more secular and least Islamic of Arab nations, Egypt may be overdue for a new paradigm, a culture of genuine dialogue and due-process under the rule of law.  A recent Zogby poll 1 conducted by the Middle East Institute shows that the main concern of Egyptians is jobs, followed by healthcare and education – structural and needs-based issues.  That could explain why Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood before – a well-run organization known for its emphasis on social services.  Yet 40% still favor democracy and only 27% remained confident in the Presidency – since he was elected Morsi’s popularity alone fell from 40% to 5%.  If the revolution is about people’s needs, Egyptians are increasingly stating that they are the ones who will be heard with regards to those needs.

Would it have been more democratic had opponents waited three years and voted out the President with the ballot box. That may have provided a smoother transition.  But given the lack of confidence in the newly elected leadership three years clearly proved too long and uncertain a wait for millions of Egyptians eager for change.  The cement had not yet set, and they were not about to sit and watch new opportunities evaporate before their eyes.  Moreover, democracy does not demand a president serve full term; there are options, such as early elections or impeachment, neither of which Morsi was open to.

Since the revolution part II was staged chiefly by a people’s movement before the army took control, can it strictly fall under the definition of a military coup.  U.S. interests and its $1.2 billion in military aid aside, if this were a coup, then it is something more akin to a non-violent “popular democratic coup” given that it had the full backing of the majority of people.  Whether a “popular civil society coup”, “democratic coup d’etat”, “popular coup”, or what the twitterverse calls a “streetocracy”, clearly it was a people’s revolt, planned and executed by the people.  Their demonstrative power cut across demographic lines without distinction for sex, age, class or religion, and comprised liberals and Islamists alike.  Uniquely poised to capitalize on the technological innovations of social media, Tamarod mobilized the largest political demonstrations in history in what was more like ‘direct democracy’ in action.

Law professor Ozan Varol 2 notes that although the idea of a “popular coup” appears counter-intuitive, he argues that a “democratic coup d’etat” is essentially an upheaval that falls within the confines of democracy rather than outside it, and cites the 2011 Egyptian revolution as an example.  The Egyptian ‘street’ opted for direct democracy in a democratic coup as oppose to representative democracy because the elected leadership had forfeited their trust.  Egyptians know that the military, with its decades of abusive rule, is not the answer to the country’s democratic aspirations, and according to the same poll people do not support military rule.  However, 94% have confidence in the army to maintain order at a time of crisis and they fully support its interim ‘technocratic’ government, provided control is returned to elected civil government.  It is the only institution capable of acting as intermediary and endorsed by all parties (except the Muslim Brotherhood and now al-Nour), and it has already transferred control to the interim government, sworn in a new cabinet, drafted a constitution, and scheduled elections (as was done in 2011).

Tamarod is an authentic grass roots movement that recognizes parliament only exists to represent all groups; its rebels’ goal was to reclaim the rule of law and the true source of constitutional authority – the people.  They cite the constitution for calling early elections which states that in the event of the president’s being unable to rule, or ‘for other reasons’, the population may call for such.  Its organizers consider a 22 million plus protest, garnered by exercising their democratic right to free expression, ample ‘reason’ for such a call.

To uphold the definition of civil society coup, the military will need to demonstrate that it is indeed at the behest of the people, and quickly transfer power over to elected leaders.  It is hard to overestimate the enormous popularity and influence the military in Egypt has as an entrenched part of society strongly allied with the judiciary. (Almost every family and industry in the country has a member who is part of the military.)  By acting not independently but, according to the NSF, on behalf of the protesters and their right to free expression, its intervention was more of a national than a political move. When crowds took to the streets it was not the government but the military that heard them, and it is with its cooperation that activists are working out a civilian council in order to develop a constitution in collaboration with all segments of society.

This revolution has yet to realize its goals.  The opposition’s success will depend on whether or not its various groups can rule inclusively.  As it stands, given huge sectarian divisions, mainly along ideological lines, civil war looms large.  The newly installed coalition government, comprised of various pro-democracy groups — liberals, Islamists, remnants of the old regime, National Salvation Front (NSF), April 6, Socialists, the Coptic Pope, the influential Salfist al-Nour party and IMF representatives — is nothing if not diverse.  If the civil society opposition that began this revolution can reconcile and unite disparate groups under a new visionary all-inclusive leadership system, then they may be on the precipice of forming a new modern Egypt.  The question is, will the new grass roots learn from the older contingency and the latter engage in genuine pluralistic national dialog between all sectors – including the military and the Islamists.   The Muslim Brotherhood is still a strong, organized and disciplined party representing 27% of the population and cannot be ignored or profiled.  It still carries a clear ideological, if not political, vision – albeit one that hearkens back to past traditions.  The opposition on the other hand desires to carry the nation forward, but needs a coherent vision with which to do so.

The old approach of retribution and exclusion taken by Morsi and his predecessors has already proved ineffective and will not have lasting results that Egyptians seek.   The cabinet that was just sworn in — consisting of well-qualified liberals, three women, and three Christians — brings optimism. Meanwhile, Muslim Brotherhood members are being murdered and jailed as Morsi is held for spying and inciting violence.  If he and other members are not treated fairly under due process of the law, the opposition will likewise lose credibility.

Ultimately the will of the people, whose tenacity and hope we can only admire, is more powerful than any institution.  Can we blame their aspirations for better leadership, a better future for themselves and their children in a society where this is freedom, justice, human rights and equality for all.  As author James L. Gelvin notes it takes ten years to assess the outcome of such upheaval.  The revolutionary path, upon which this movement has embarked in Egypt, may have only just begun. Social transitions are slow and complex and the outcomes unpredictable, but all movements have to begin somewhere.

Brita Rose has an MA in International Affairs/Middle East from the CUNY Graduate Center and is a freelance writer in NYC.


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