In assessing Egyptian defense minister Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to remove President Mohamed Morsi from office July 3, there are two key points to keep in mind. The first concerns the army, and the second concerns what is now, given the escalation of violence over the last two weeks, its rival in the field, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The army is famously corrupt, holding a number of lucrative business interests that keep the senior leadership comfortable. And yet this institution, by all accounts revered by almost every Egyptian, nonetheless has a reputation for professionalism, competence, and impartiality. It is now time to review that assessment. Having failed at governing in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s fall, the army has again taken Egypt’s political destiny into its hands and will almost surely prove as inept this time around in stabilizing the country. What may well make it worse is that in staging its coup against Morsi, the army sided with one half of the population against the other, and thereby created the conditions for civil war.
The second key issue is that the coup comports perfectly with the Muslim Brotherhood’s historical narrative: The West and its Muslim lackeys are determined to oppress real Muslims. From the Brotherhood’s viewpoint, it looks like this: Even when we play by Western rules—submitting our platforms and policies to popular vote, abiding by international agreements like the peace treaty with Israel—our enemies will not allow us to rule ourselves. Our long years of attempting to mimic Western ways amount to a chronicle of failure. There can be no accommodation with the West and its local agents, only war.
The White House, in defending neither Morsi nor the coup, has been neutral in its public language, suggesting only that Egypt return to democratic norms as quickly as possible. Behind the scenes, administration officials have been encouraging the country’s new ruling coalition to bring the Brotherhood back into the political process as soon as possible. But all that is beside the point, for already the Brotherhood and its supporters are blaming the United States for the coup. From the perspective of a paranoid political movement whose worldview was shaped during nearly a century underground and in jail, the case is clear: Morsi was overthrown by an American-trained and funded army. Moreover, it seems that it was the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, who broke the news to Morsi aides that the army was kicking them out.
With these two points in mind—the army’s incompetence and share of culpability for the current crisis; and the Brotherhood’s view of the coup, shared by many millions of Egyptians—it may be easier to understand why the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. The country is being returned to the same parties that proved incapable of managing Egypt after Mubarak’s exit—primarily the military, along with other so-called secular forces, including the young revolutionaries, or Tamarrod movement. All of them were outmaneuvered by the Muslim Brotherhood and shown to have little talent for politics and less for compromise. It is they who are now charged with righting the ship of state, rescuing Egypt from an economic disaster, and stabilizing a country where violence—both political violence and the erosion of law and order—has become part of everyday life for millions. The coup is unlikely to solve any of these problems.
To understand Egypt’s economic misery, it is useful to understand how it got this way. Leading up to Mubarak’s downfall, the Egyptian economy won high marks from the IMF and World Bank for more than half a decade for reforms implemented by a group of financiers and businessmen surrounding Mubarak’s youngest son, Gamal. It is likely that Gamal’s gang was corrupt (a relative term in Arab politics), but their reforms were able to win the confidence of the international community and attract foreign direct investment. When Mubarak was toppled, those policies were, too, because they were associated with the old regime. No one was going to step forward with promises of reform and liberalization when the people previously mouthing those terms had been rewarded for their efforts with arrest or exile.