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.
Morsi found himself in a similar situation with the $4.8 billion loan that the IMF arranged for Egypt last year. The package was important less for the money itself—a drop in the bucket for an economy hemorrhaging foreign currency reserves—than for the signal to donors, lenders, and investors that Cairo was taking steps to get its house in order. But Morsi did not dare implement the austerity measures required by the IMF because this would have caused more civic unrest. Note that none of the protesters interviewed by U.S. reporters are clamoring for economic liberalization or, for that matter, faulting Morsi for raising public sector wages and other big-government spending policies that burden the economy and crush the entrepreneurial spirit of ordinary Egyptians. The liberals, as the press typically characterizes the Tamarrod activists, do not believe in liberal, free-market economic policies. Many middle-class Egyptians expect the government to provide subsidies for virtually every staple, from bread and rice to fuel, which they would not be able to easily afford on the low salaries from the lifetime jobs in the public sector that they expect the government to provide them with after they’ve graduated from college.
Even had Morsi tried, it is hard to see how he could have gotten other parties to buy into belt-tightening measures. Many had no interest in cooperating with Morsi in the first place. Any who might have been more pliable knew that backing an initiative to slash subsidies would have been tantamount to political, or actual, suicide. As strange as it may sound, political figures and military officials across the political spectrum have been terrified of the Tamarrod group for more than two years. After all, when they brought down president for life Hosni Mubarak, they toppled a pharaoh. Who knew who they might target next? Advocating economic reform would have exposed political figures to the populist demagogues in Tahrir Square who, more than the army and more than the Islamists, have set the political dialogue the last two and a half years. The single most important reason that the Egyptian economy has tanked is the revolution. The people who filled the streets to topple Mubarak and later Morsi have engineered their own prospective famine, and no Egyptian leader dares save them from starvation.
Tourism was long Egypt’s big cash earner, but with Cairo in flames, foreigners robbed, raped, and murdered, and a political situation showing little sign of stabilizing, it will be years before Western tourists, the industry’s big spenders, return en masse. Even the Russian and Eastern European budget tour groups who fill second- and third-rate Sinai resorts will soon come to rethink their travel plans as the Sinai becomes more dangerous with the proliferation of jihadist groups.
The one upside to date is that Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are stepping up to help stop the bleeding. Billions of dollars of post-coup pledges of assistance from the Gulf states, led by Riyadh’s $5 billion, will augment Qatar’s continued contributions totaling to date some $8 billion. The cash will ensure a relatively happy Ramadan season, and likely delay any confrontation between the newly named prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, and the Tamarrod activists.
Beblawi has correctly identified the core problem: “We must create a clear understanding for the public that the level of subsidies in Egypt is unsustainable, and the situation is critical,” he said in an interview before he was tapped for the position. In office, he’s going to find it much more difficult to practice what he preaches. What’s music to the IMF will sound to many Egyptians, especially the 40 percent who live on less than $2 a day, like the gates of hell opening.
Even assuming the Gulf states honor their pledges—and they have frequently reneged on similar promises to the Palestinians—Egypt is too big and too hungry for its resource-rich cousins to carry it indefinitely. It is difficult to see anything that would brighten Egypt’s bleak economic picture except a long period of stability.
The defense minister named as interim president Adli Mansour, a former chief justice who is leading negotiations to form a caretaker government and set out a road map for new elections. The problem is that much of the population will consider such elections a farce. The party that won the last presidential election, and with its Islamist allies 70 percent of the seats in parliament, has been humiliated.
After the coup, Morsi was put under house arrest, along with several top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie. There is talk of trying to bring the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups back into the political process—Mansour says that all parties are welcome to run in the next elections, including the Brotherhood—but this is unlikely to happen, especially when the Tamarrod movement wants the Brotherhood banned from political life forever.
More important, even if the Brothers were allowed to return to the political arena, party discipline and esprit de corps would almost certainly forbid it, especially now that dozens of Brotherhood supporters have been killed by the army. From the Brotherhood’s point of view, prospective candidates would merely be lending legitimacy to an illegal process and a corrupt system. There is no Brotherhood member so credulous as to believe that even if by some chance he happened to win at the polls he, unlike Morsi, would be allowed to enjoy his presidential term in its entirety.
The participation of other Islamist groups hinges on a number of factors. It’s true that the Salafists hate the Brotherhood, and the country’s second-largest Islamist party after the Brotherhood, Al Nour, agreed at first to participate in the ruling coalition. However, after the army killed Brotherhood supporters, Al Nour withdrew from consultations. Perhaps Al Nour is looking to leverage its position as legitimate Islamist cover for the ruling coalition, and will get a deal they want from the army and its civilian frontmen. However, they are also likely to find themselves in a precarious spot. They are not going to win any support from the so-called liberal or secular part of the electorate, which has made its dislike of all Islamists clear. They are also unlikely to pick up much of the support previously tendered to the Brotherhood, because most of those sympathetic to the Brotherhood are seething. Further, if the confrontation between the army and the Brotherhood continues to draw blood, it will be difficult to justify participating in a political process that, as the Brotherhood will make sure to clarify, is overseen by an American-funded army that is spilling the blood of authentic Muslims. The Salafists may wind up sidelined, if not compelled to side with the Brotherhood.
And yet the biggest problem is not the derailed Islamist parties but the many millions of Egyptians whose views and aspirations they represent. Some observers have noted that Morsi won by a very slim margin, suggesting that the Brotherhood is not really that popular with the Egyptian public. However, it’s worth recalling that Morsi was the Brotherhood’s second-choice candidate after master strategist Khairat el-Shater was disqualified. The fact that an uncharismatic novice who by all accounts is not a terrifically bright man nonetheless carried the majority suggests the Brotherhood is popular indeed.
While some have cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process that landed Morsi in the presidential palace, the reality is that most Egyptians, as well as the rest of the world, remain convinced that Morsi won Egypt’s first free presidential election. For example, in contrast to the Green movement that arose after the results of Iran’s contested and likely fraudulent 2009 presidential elections were announced, very few Egyptian protesters complained that Morsi stole the elections. They were simply unhappy with how he performed at the job that 51.7 percent of the voters, perhaps including themselves, had elected him to do.
With the coup, the millions of Egyptians who voted for Morsi were told that their first free votes were worthless. Their political will was nullified by the army on behalf of a vocal but not necessarily representative protest movement. Some estimates have claimed that at the height of the recent protests, 14 million people took to Egypt’s streets. It is an impressive number, but it is worth noting that there are several Cairo neighborhoods that are more than twice the size of the largest demonstrations that took place in the capital. Brotherhood supporters, or the losers in the army-refereed referendum, are likely to be just as numerous and every bit as angry as those who took to the streets and saw their demands fulfilled. As two and a half years of incessant protests have shown, no Egyptian needs to swallow his grievance silently. Going to the street and employing violence has been proven to work—after all, it toppled two presidents.
Both coups of course were army affairs, the first one by proxy. Because the military did not want to see Mubarak raise his son Gamal to the presidency, it made no move to clear the streets when protesters went out in January 2011 to bring down the aging autocrat. It was in the army’s own interests to let the revolutionaries topple Mubarak. Lacking a civilian frontman, the military was then forced to rule directly, a role it played reluctantly and performed poorly, not least by failing to keep the streets free of violent actors, like those who killed 24 Coptic Christians in October 2011, or those who laid siege to the Israeli embassy in September of that year, or soccer supporters who slaughtered 73 rival fans in Port Said in February 2012.
To be fair to the army and police, there is another reason, in addition to incompetence, that they did not bring peace to the streets of Egypt. In the aftermath of the February 2011 revolution, security forces were charged for attacking and killing protesters. Many, if not all, were subsequently acquitted, and in announcing that they would be retried, Morsi found common cause with the Tamarrod activists. However, what that meant was that the police and the army would remain wary of enforcing Egypt’s laws, lest they find themselves brought up on charges.
Thus, the anti-Mubarak protests and the carnivalesque violence that followed it for more than two years—including the storming of the U.S. embassy (conducted when Morsi rather than the army held executive power)—paved the way for July 3. In forcing Morsi from power at the behest of protesters, the Egyptian army effectively institutionalized street demonstrations, and the violence that issues from them, as a legitimate form of political expression. The army is largely responsible for the mayhem now on the streets. It took sides against roughly half the nation. If the violence continues and a full-scale civil war ensues, the question for the army will be whether to try to adjudicate the war that it started, or choose to finish the job itself and take up arms against half of the country.
Since there is little chance of the Brotherhood returning to the political arena anytime soon, or of Morsi being reinstated, the immediate question for the organization’s leadership is how best to take revenge on the army. Direct confrontation, like that which has already left dozens dead, is possible. There are lots of small arms at hand, via smuggling routes between the western desert and Libya. Indeed the Brotherhood has called for a war against the army, but it will likely avoid a war in which it would be outgunned. Similarly, if the Brotherhood waged terrorist operations that harmed the general population, it would risk losing the sympathy the coup has earned it. It seems that the Brotherhood has already made its decision: to mobilize forces in the Sinai. Already Hamas and Sinai-based jihadists have been active in what has become the Wild West of the eastern Mediterranean, killing at least three Egyptian soldiers, reportedly in coordination with the Brotherhood.
Perhaps the key strategic concern is that the Brotherhood may go after the Egyptian army’s Achilles’ heel—the unpopular peace treaty with Israel that ensures the military continued flow of American money and arms. Therefore, it may try to embroil the military in a conflict with Israel, or at the very least embarrass it for not fighting Israel. In such efforts, the Brotherhood would find themselves with many allies, including the Salafists, Hamas, and Sinai jihadists, cheered on by millions of ordinary Egyptians.
Many believe that the coup spells bad news for Hamas, but this would appear to be wishful thinking. Rather, what is bad for Hamas is an Egyptian government that, while obviously sympathetic to the goals of Gaza’s Islamic resistance, must nonetheless for reasons of its own self-interest contain it. This was the situation prior to the coup, when the Brotherhood was compelled to come down on the side of Washington and Jerusalem during Israel’s campaign in Gaza last fall, Operation Pillar of Defense. The Obama administration overstated Morsi’s role, letting it be known that he sponsored the peace deal. (There was no deal, only a return to the status quo ante with lots of dead Hamas commanders and a depleted arsenal, and the arrangement was brokered through military and intelligence channels, not by Morsi.) And yet because Morsi could not afford war with Israel, or afford to be made to look like a quisling for avoiding a war with Israel, the Brotherhood was furious with Hamas. Moreover, because the army enjoyed the cover of an Islamist government, it was more aggressive in closing Hamas’s smuggling tunnels than it ever had been under Mubarak. The coup changes all this. It will likely push the Brotherhood and Hamas back into each other’s arms because, in the end, a few small tactical differences are nothing compared to the larger war against an American-Israeli project to subjugate Muslims.
The same is likely the case with jihadist groups in the Sinai, who dislike the Brotherhood as much as the Salafists do, but are itching for any excuse to take up arms against an Egyptian army that they see as acting on behalf of the Americans and Zionists. In short, the coup may well unify those whom the Morsi presidency divided—the Islamists. Undoubtedly, the Islamic Republic of Iran will be looking at these configurations in order to exploit the various opportunities that the coup has made available to advance Iranian interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
In spite of the coup and the Freedom and Justice party’s likely removal from official Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t going anywhere. It embodies the fullest expression of Arab political modernity. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has roots going all the way back to Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when the first modern contact between the West and the lands of Islam touched off the Muslim reform movement. As the Muslim reformers saw it, the reason the Westerners had so easily overrun Egypt, and the reason their science and technology were superior, was that Muslims no longer practiced authentic Islam. Because the faith had become corrupted by innovations and polluted with extraneous influences, Muslims were weak and subject to the power of the West. From where the Brotherhood is standing, the coup only validates a 200-year-old worldview.
Morsi was an autocrat, which is hardly surprising given that Egypt has been ruled for many thousands of years by autocrats. There is no template for an elected commander in chief to build consensus and promote compromise. But neither do the various parties that opposed Morsi have any homespun experience of the democratic process. Even with the Islamists exiled from the political arena, willingly or not, it is unlikely the opposition will prove any less divided among themselves.
The fact that Morsi failed to govern well is immaterial, and not just because under the present conditions Egypt is virtually ungovernable. The Brotherhood was never interested in governance, but only in raw power. It promises adherents not just a better standard of living or a better Egypt, but triumph and transcendence in this realm and the next. It was never a political party interested in the details of leadership, as evidenced by its quasi-totalitarian slogan: Islam is the solution. Rather, the Brotherhood is a social movement whose success rests on having turned an existential issue into a political problem. The Brotherhood uses the term “social justice,” a locution derived from third-world nationalist movements, to describe what others think of as the tragic nature of life: Fate is cruel, and often so are other human beings. Islamism appeals to so many Egyptians, as well as millions of others across the Middle East, because it is a utopian project with a readymade scapegoat. If the promise of a better world like the one that gave birth to the prophet of Islam cannot be fulfilled, if social justice cannot be achieved, it is because someone out there is to blame.
It is a rich irony that Morsi was cast in the role that the Brotherhood has typically reserved for Egyptian leaders—Nasser, Sadat, and of course Mubarak: to be blamed for everything that was wrong with Egypt. Other players featured in Egypt’s paranoid political drama include Israel and the United States. The fact that so many anti-Morsi protesters complained of American support for Morsi does not augur well. There is much to criticize in the Obama administration’s Egypt policy. However, the fact that the opposition blames the White House for conducting bilateral relations with an American ally of four decades led by a president that its population chose freely is yet more evidence of Egypt’s political immaturity. It suggests that the opposition is feeding from the same trough of paranoia that nourishes the Brotherhood’s political program. Sadly for Egypt, this would seem to be the one thing that virtually all parties agree on at this point—the Americans are at fault.
It will be years before the consequences of the coup are fully understood. If by some chance the toppling of an elected president leads to political maturity, the careful creation of an inclusive system in which politicians and voters accept compromise as a necessary virtue, then this subversion of Egypt’s experiment in democracy will come to be seen as a useful step. In the meantime, as the coup made plain, Islam is not the solution—and the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly Egypt’s only problem.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.