What just happened in Egypt?
It was not supposed to turn out this way: Only a year after Egyptians freely elected Mohamed Mursi as their president for a four-year term, he was removed by a military decree. This sets in motion a “road map” for a new transitional period leading to another experiment akin to the period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The ambivalence was hard to miss. The sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s storied and influential institution, was there to lend legitimacy to the military decree. But his words told the story. He was compelled by sharia, he said, to choose the lesser of two evils in supporting early elections. But the ambivalence of the thousands of liberals who joined together in the protests at Tahrir Square and other public squares was even greater.
Many had chanted only months ago against military rule. Some had even voted for Mursi because they felt that his opponent Ahmad Shafik was Mubarak’s man. This is not where they wanted to be — but here they were in the millions with some of Shafik’s supporters. Most are not jubilant; they are relieved but worried.
They know what they don’t want. But do they know what they want or do they even all want the same thing?
This, in a way, is the story of the entire Arab uprisings that started in 2010: They are at the core manifestation of new public empowerment that’s here to stay in the Middle East and North Africa. But the public was never of the same mind. In Egypt, for example, the public polarization, especially between Islamists and secularists, was hard to miss.
Differences in what people want are now subordinated to more basic questions: What has just happened in Egypt? Was this a military coup, counter-revolution or a corrective course of the first revolution? It is hard to tell, in part because it had elements of all — and the opposition forces, united against Mursi, had differing aims and aspirations.
Only Mursi’s most ardent supporters doubted the fact that the economy was in trouble. They continued to claim until the end that the opposition media and the “fuloul” (remnants of the Mubarak regime) were exaggerating the economic mess — or directly engineering it.
But in the end, that was probably not the central factor in the picture. It was that Mursi failed to win anyone outside his constituency — appearing more and more as an instrument of the Muslim Brotherhood that fielded him as a last-minute presidential candidate. The fear that the Brotherhood was trying to remake Egypt in its own image was probably a more powerful energizer of the opposition than a troubled economy.
Where does this leave Egypt?
Start with the military. The army is still a central player. But it knows it has limits. In contrast to its management of the post-Mubarak transition, the military started this transition by providing an air of broader legitimacy — obtaining the support (and the presence during the decree) of the Al-Azhar sheikh, the Coptic pope, the head of the Salafi Nour Party and Muhammad ElBaradei, the head of the Dustour Party, as an emissary of a broader coalition of opposition parties and representatives of the Tamrrud coalition.
More important, the military attempted to distance itself from actual government. The transitional president was to be the president of Egypt’s Constitutional Court (a civilian); the government was to be technocratic, and the transition brief. But there is no escaping the conclusion: The military officers are the kingmakers, an elected president is no more, and the constitution is suspended.
One immediate consequence was a decree from the interior minister outlawing all “religious” TV channels — obviously aimed at popular Islamist outlets. But if those angry with Mursi thought the story would end there, they didn’t have to wait beyond the end of the day to find out: The clamp down went beyond the religious stations as security forces raided Al Jazeera in Egypt.
The transition will be tested almost immediately — even beyond the grave challenges that any government, technocratic or not, will face, particularly in the economy. The first major issue, however, will be the reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
Even if Mursi has lost support since he took office, he still has millions of followers. Many packed the streets across the nation. They see in the decree a naked coup d’état against this legitimately elected president – the first in Egyptian history. They are unlikely to go down without a fight.
The Brotherhood has waited for this moment — and has been largely repressed — for 80 years. And their allies outside Egypt fear that the example of failed short rule will taint other Islamists in the region. The question will be if the challenge can remain largely peaceful.
Since the Brotherhood and its supporters are likely to feel robbed, will a transitional government be able to lure them back into a new political process? Or is this a beginning of a more profound polarization in Egypt than we have even witnessed in the past year?
One hope is that the Brotherhood may think that they could win again — at least in the parliament. Given the non-Islamist groups’ continued disarray, they may just have a chance. They have generally been a peaceful movement, but they had in the past given birth to militant offshoots. The anger of many of their followers was hard to miss, even if their leaders urge restraint.
The groups that have opposed Mursi will now have to contend with their own differences and with the military. Some (including the military) are satisfied with the suspension of the constitution in the transition. But others are not, which became immediately evident as soon as the media repression started.
Some, particularly ElBaradei, had earlier opposed presidential elections before writing a new constitution. Others want an election first. As happened in the past, the terms of the constitution will inevitably be the subject of heated divisions.
There are more questions than answers with the removal of Mursi. And Egypt remains a deeply divided society. But the military, the Brotherhood, the liberals and everyone else should have learned crucial lessons from the events of the past three years: With all their divisions, Egyptians young and old want their voices heard.
They will no longer accept being repressed by either left or right. Each sector of society cannot alone dictate politics, and each has to contend with opposing voices. If someone today hopes to replace Mursi and Mubarak by imposing their own version of authoritarian rule, the stamina of millions in the streets over two and a half challenging years must give any aspiring tyrant pause.
PHOTO (Top): Protesters against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi set-off fireworks in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
PHOTO (Insert A): Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, gesture in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
PHOTO (Insert B): Supporters of Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi, holding his picture, react after the Egyptian army’s statement was read out on state TV, at the Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah