By Dr Filippo Dionigi, Teaching Fellow at LSE and an expert in Islamist politics.
The past five days have been historical for Egypt. But the next months will prove to be a challenging transition period during which the precarious democratic progress which the country has made since 2011 will be at risk.
The protests inaugurated by the Tamarod movement on 30 June have suddenly changed the stagnant political situation of the country. They have shown, once again, the capacity of Egyptians to protest peacefully and effectively. Nonetheless, what stands out during the most recent turmoil of the past few days is that the role of the army has come to represent a fundamental difference in comparison with the past two years. The army has fully capitalised on the protests and has consequently superimposed its agenda that has resulted in an evident overlap, at least partly, with the demands of the Tamarod movement., By manoeuvring President Mohamed Morsi out of power, the army has re-acquired legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians after a period in which it was undermined by the experience of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. After the declaration of the ultimatum to Morsi on the 1st of July, army helicopters with the Egyptian flag hanging from the helicopters’ lower end / backside flew slowly over Tahrir square and Ittihadiya. This symbolic action was couple with jubilant scenes on the street where celebrations of the union of intents between the protesters and the army took place.
It would be naive to think that the army’s role is immune from power interests and that the military is unambiguously committed to a democratic process. The role of the army has partly overshadowed the power of the Egyptian people and the next months will be a test for its actual commitment to a democratic transition.
The Egyptian popular movement will need to work hard to oppose the undue arrogations of power from the army. Furthermore, an inclusive and legitimate transitional process for Egypt cannot ignore the instances of the Muslim Brotherhood which, although defeated, remains a considerable political player. All parties, and above all the army, must avoid the temptation of a dangerous “payback time” for the country. But the arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership following the military coup are indicative of the army’s intention to strike heavily on the Islamists, thus going against any measure for reconciliation.
For the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, this is perhaps one of the bitterest phases of its history. The FJP is paying a high price for the many errors it made in the past year. Perhaps, its leadership is even regretting the idea of taking part so prominently in the presidential elections of 2012, a step they were hesitant to take from the beginning. Once elected, the FJP adopted a unilateral and winner-take-all approach that failed to understand the need for a shared national pattern of transition towards stronger institutional stability and effective reforms. One of the most significant examples of unilateralism was the controversial constitutional declaration released by Morsi in November 2012, which would have given him virtually unchecked executive powers and then he was forced to partially withdraw.
Even more problematic was the constitutional process of Egypt that was subsequently boycotted by the opposition. Eventually the constitution was approved only by a minority of Egyptian voters, thus failing to create the common ground which would have been necessary to reform and govern the country.
The repeated assertion of the FJP of its legitimate political role in the past days of protests did nothing to change the opinion of millions of Egyptians. In his last speech defiant of the army ultimatum, Morsi repeated the word “legitimacy” persistently (this specific word being the motto of the FJP’s mobilisation) in order to reiterate his role as the lawful elected president “of all Egyptians”.
Although democratically legitimate, Morsi’s rule in Egypt was held accountable by millions of protesters for its incapacity to deliver meaningful change. Accountability in democracy is as important as legitimacy, and the former has certainly prevailed over the latter in this case.
The consequences of Morsi’s deposition have potentially historical repercussions for the Islamist movement. The Muslim Brotherhood has operated covertly for the past few decades – yet its first official governmental experience that only lasted a year, has been judged a failure by the millions of Egyptians that came into the streets during the Tamarod mobilisation.
The historical moment of the FJP’s government of 2012 is very likely to become a historical failure, which may serve as a caveat for other Islamist governments in the region, including Tunisia as well as Turkey, which has undergone its own political and social turmoil in the past weeks. The deposition of Morsi, through what Juan Cole defined as a “revocouption”, may mark the beginning of a decline in Islamists’ popularity even though the rise of Salafism in North Africa is in counter-tendency. Islamists will nonetheless react to the military coup and a phase of tensions is inevitably ahead.
Sheikh Qaradawy, a notable religious guide associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently declared that since Egyptians waited for thirty years on Mubarak’s regime, they could have waited one more year for Morsi. This is indicative of how Islamists, perhaps blinded by their electoral success, seem to have lost touch with the popular reality “out there”.
In fact, for the Egyptians, four days were more than enough to move on with the next phase. Failing to address popular demands and discontent has been a fatal miscalculation for the first Islamist government of Egypt and the army has exploited the situation fully to make its return to power.