Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Egypt's generals depose Morsi, Egypt remains divided

The military takes charge in Egypt again. At least temporarily.

Egyptian State Television/AP
This image made from video shows Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi addressing the nation on Egyptian State Television Wednesday.

Military-backed dictatorship in Egypt stretched from Hosni Mubarak to Anwar Sadat to Abdel Gamal Nasser, and when it finally ended on Feb. 11, 2011, it was the generals themselves who delivered the coup de grâce.

 It was a stunning achievement for street power in Egypt, something unthinkable a few months prior, when the aging Mr. Mubarak had engineered the most crooked election in Egyptian history (no mean feat). 

Just two-and-a-half years later, street power has won again – with the generals once more proving decisive. In a national address, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Morsi's appointed defense minister and member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said President Mohamed Morsi had rejected every effort at reconciliation and compromise in recent days – as sometimes violent protests swept the capital – and announced that a new government of technocratic national unity under the supervision of the Supreme Constitutional Court will soon be formed.

Framed by the Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, Imam of Al Azhar Ahmad al-Tayeb, secular opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, and a number of fellow generals, General Sissi indicated that the military had been pushed to this decision by Morsi's failings. His words indicate that the military does not want to be front-and-center, as it was for nearly a year after Mubarak was deposed, and reaffirmed the impression that while the military wants substantial power and autonomy in the new Egypt, it is not interested in being on the hook for governing directly.

Much the same was said in Feb. 2011, but the context is starkly different. It's one thing for a military to abandon their dictator and begin to look at opening the political process, an event that was wildly popular across the Egyptian public. It is quite another to depose the only and first democratically elected president of Egypt at a time when the country is sharply divided.

Split screen

A split screen on Al Jazeera English shortly after his remarks ably illustrates that story. On one side, ecstatic and chanting anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square, dozens of fireworks bursting overhead waving Egyptian flags. The other side depicts somber and edgily silent Muslim Brotherhood supporters elsewhere in Cairo, confused about what to do next.

Is this a military coup? It sure looks like one, and the military's decision was decisive. Many Morsi opponents have been angry at this framing, pointing to the vast crowds in Cairo and elsewhere as evidence that the military's help would merely be to carry out the will of the people.

But the fact remains that a narrow majority of Egypt's 80 million people voted for Morsi a little over a year ago. And while many of those voters have since abandoned him, angry at his heavy-handed governance, a Constitution that doesn't protect basic freedoms, and his failure to turn a collapsing economy around, there are still millions of supporters of both the president and the venerable Islamist movement to which he belongs.

Their will was not done today, and avoiding bloodshed and convincing them that they, too, have a voice in Egypt's future is the crucial and immediate work of the next few days. The danger? Reprisals from anti-Brotherhood protesters or the temptation of the victorious politicians to behave in as high-handed and dismissive way toward the Brotherhood as Morsi did in power.

Right thing for Egypt?

A more interesting question is whether this coup – or managed transition, or whatever you chose to call it – is the right thing for Egypt at this juncture. While Americans and many in the West are conditioned to see all military coups as bad, Egypt's politics had ground to a standstill and the country itself was becoming ungovernable, for anyone.

Did Morsi have a democratic mandate of sorts? Unquestionably. But vast amounts of good will were squandered by him, and every effort to broaden political participation and reach compromises with people who favor a more liberal democracy failed in the past year.

With huge numbers of Egyptians on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahallah, and a number of other cities and the prospect of sporadic violence turning into something much uglier, something had to give.

That's what just happened.

Now the job is to do what Egypt writ large has failed to do since 2011: Build a national consensus around a new Constitution and a new political approach, get the legal ducks in a row so that the farce of holding a Parliamentary election only to have its results stricken down by a Mubarak-era court is not repeated, and to build robust protections of civil liberties into the system at the front end so that Egyptians will still feel they have some kind of voice in their nation even when their favored parties and candidates lose elections.

Egypt in the next few days will be on a knife's edge: What Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council say to their supporters, and how the interim government reaches out to them, will determine whether Egypt transition 2.0 has a chance at succeeding.

If not, we could be seeing a lot more of events like the one today in the coming years. The Muslim Brotherhood had first shot. They failed, both because of their own shortcomings and the enormity of the task, given the legacy of dictatorship and state of the economy. Egypt's so-called liberals now have a second shot – with the board set in a far more difficult position than it was 28 months ago.

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