Can Egypt's popular coup reset a faltering transition?

With three killed by the Egyptian military in Cairo this morning, Egypt's transition 2.0 is off to a rocky start.

Hassan Ammar/AP
A supporter of ousted Egypt President Mohamed Morsi cries during a protest near the University of Cairo, Giza, Egypt, Friday, July 5. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called for a wave of protests Friday, furious over the military's ouster of its president and arrest of its revered leader and other top figures, raising fears of violence and retaliation from Islamic militants.
Amr Nabil/AP
Opponents of Egypt's Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi wave national flags to a passing underground train as they celebrate Morsi's ouster in Cairo, Wednesday, July 3.

After two-and-a-half years of a messy and acrimonious transition, some in Egypt see a chance for a fresh start with the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. But the Muslim Brotherhood that catapulted Mr. Morsi to power sees a return to military dictatorship and are reacting furiously.

Three pro-Morsi protesters were shot and killed by the military in Cairo today, as they marched outside an officer's club in the city where the former president is believed to be held, a clear indication of how difficult restoring calm and faith in the political process is going to be.

When former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by mass protests in 2011, there were high hopes for an opening of Egypt's political system. But while the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi became Egypt's first democratically elected leader in June of last year, his year in power was marked by autocratic tendencies and a passage of a controversial constitution that have sharply divided a nation that seemed so unified at the time of Mubarak's fall.

But with Morsi's removal from power in a military coup that was wildly cheered in Tahrir Square, can Egypt reset a transitional process that has faltered so badly and build something like a national consensus on the way forward? With only a vague outline presented of the new transitional plan and fury among both the Muslim Brotherhood's followers and their secular-leaning opponents the task won't be easy.

Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, says none of the challenges of the last period have disappeared. “Egypt is still going to be faced with fundamental questions on security sector reform, economic stability, transitional justice, and the list goes on,” he says. “These big national problems require fundamental, systemic reform and that can only be possible with some degree of consensus. These problems are beyond the capacity of any one faction to shoulder.”

The former president's opponents may see an opportunity to start over, but Mr. Morsi's supporters see a military coup that derailed Egypt's democratic transition and some have vowed not to participate in the new power transition. And while the Islamist movement's popularity has taken a hit, it's still the largest and best-organized grass roots movement in the country.

When the head of the armed forces, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, read a statement on state television Wednesday announcing the end of Morsi's presidency, he gave the broadest outline of a transition plan, referred to as a “roadmap,” that was agreed to by a group of political and religious leaders and youth representatives. The Constitution was suspended, and the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court was named interim president, with the authority to issue constitutional declarations, until presidential elections are held. Gen. Sissi said a technocratic government would be appointed, as well as a commission to amend the constitution, and that new parliamentary elections would be held.

The first step in the roadmap took place yesterday, when interim President Adly Mansour took the oath of office. Mr. Mansour is relatively unknown, having only recently been elevated to chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court when his predecessor retired. Mansour's political leanings are unclear.

But the sequence and timing of the other promised transitional steps remain undeclared, and perhaps undecided.

Mr. Mansour today issued a decree dissolving the upper House of Parliament, which had taken legislative powers when the lower house was dissolved last year. He also appointed a new intelligence chief. The interim president is expected to issue another decree outlining the timing of the next steps after appointing a prime minister. But that process is already mired in debate, as ultraconservative salafis have rejected the choice of a non-Islamist politician, Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, says a source with knowledge of the negotiations

The previous transition, say some observers, was flawed from the start. After the mass protests that drove former President Hosni Mubarak from office, the military stepped in and placed executive power in the hands of a group of generals called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The generals, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, called a referendum on a provisional constitution to guide the transition. Liberal and secular groups, including ElBaradei, opposed the military's proposal to hold elections first and then write a constitution. It was the beginning of a divide between Islamists and non-Islamists in Egypt that would plague the entire transition.

Hanna says the transition went wrong at that point, when the coalition that had opposed Mubarak fractured, and the Brotherhood and SCAF entered a “marriage of convenience.”

“The assumption that those two actors could warily play out a procedural transition to democracy that eschewed any of the fundamental reforms that were necessary, and a campaign in support of that effort, led by the Islamists during the referendum, introduced the crude division of politics between the believers and non-believers,” he says. “That, I think, poisoned the well.”

The SCAF saw in the Brotherhood, the most organized group in the country, a way to reestablish stability, says Mr. Hanna, while the Brotherhood saw SCAF as a vehicle for delivering elections and power to the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood entered elections with gusto, breaking promises leaders had made about how much power they would seek. The group's political arm eventually won about 42 percent of parliamentary seats in the first legislative body elected after Mubarak's ouster. Then, after promising not to field a presidential candidate, the movement did so, twice – nominating Morsi after their first candidate was disqualified.

Throughout the process, non-Islamist parties were frustrated with the Brotherhood, which they saw as focused solely on winning elections, rather than on Egypt's well-being, and avoiding difficult but necessary issues like reforming Egypt's police forces. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, accused the non-Islamist parties of being sore losers and of attempting to derail the process with the help of former regime sympathizers because they were too weak to win at the ballot box.

Yasser El Shimy, Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the focus on elections alone was harmful. “The political system [was] reduced to one election after another with the winners of those elections believing it gives them a sweeping mandate to do as they please, and the losers of those elections believing that the election essentially means nothing. And they are both incorrect,” he says. “What Egypt needs above all is an agreement … on what type of political system they would like to establish and the basic rules of the game.”

A turning point came in November, when former President Morsi issued a constitutional decree placing himself above judicial challenge, then used the power to quickly push to a vote a controversial new constitution and appoint a new prosecutor general seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood contended this was necessary to keep remnants of the old regime from derailing the process, Morsi alienated and angered many Egyptians who had voted for him.

The new transition should should be deliberate and inclusive, making sure that the Muslim Brotherhood is not excluded, says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “Any process has to be inclusive and protracted and public,” he says, adding that so far, the signs for the new process are not positive. “The first signals are that you're going to have this committee appointed by the military, for constitutional amendments, in a hurry and rushed through. To me that's like saying the last map we used led us to drive off a cliff, so now that we've got a second chance let's go drive off the same cliff.”

The military, he says, should indicate to the Brotherhood that they are welcome to participate fully in the process. And the committee that writes the constitution should be “broad-based” and “take their time to make sure this is a consensual process.”

Yet that's likely to be thorny, as each of the parties who got at least some of what they wanted out of the 2012 constitution are unlikely to want to hand back their gains, including the military and salafis. Non-Islamist parties are acutely aware of this, and are attempting to maintain good relations with salafis until the constitution is agreed upon. It is unclear if the Brotherhood will participate in the process.

And it is also unclear whether the constitution-writing or elections will come first. Hisham Kassem, a veteran human rights activist and newspaper publisher, says the constitution-writing process should not be linked to elections, but that both processes could take place simultaneously. He also argues for a fast transition. “We should try to be back to civilian rule with elections anywhere between six months to one year, but I think we can get it done in six months.”

And, he says, a roadmap that lays out the process should be issued as soon as possible. “What we need now is a constitutional declaration that will begin to clarify things a little. Within one week [from the military's announcement Wednesday] we need to have some kind of idea or structure of what will happen,” he says.

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