Marc Lynch

Downfall in Cairo

Morsy is out. The military is in. But it doesn't look good for anyone.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement of the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, suspension of the Constitution, and early presidential elections has brought Egypt’s latest political crisis to its endgame. The massive crowds in the street will welcome the military’s intervention deliriously, while all will await the potential response of enraged Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Nobody should celebrate a military coup against Egypt’s first freely elected president, no matter how badly he failed or how badly they hate the Muslim Brotherhood. Turfing out Morsy will not come close to addressing the underlying failures that have plagued Egypt’s catastrophic transition over the last two and a half years. The military’s intervention is an admission of the failure of Egypt’s entire political class, and those now celebrating already probably know that they could soon rue the coup.

This new uprising certainly upends what U.S. policymakers considered to be their best efforts to support a shaky democratic transition. Few in Washington are sorry to see Morsy go. But few believe that this process, a mass uprising culminating in a military coup, will restore stability or lead to a more democratic outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood performed atrociously in power, but the real problem was always the weakness and illegitimacy of the political institutions. If the coup and uprising solve the first at the expense of the second, then the political reset will fail.

One of the many ironies of recent days is that for all the anti-American anger among Egyptian protesters, their efforts seem set to empower the military. And of course it is the military, not the Muslim Brotherhood, that remains America’s closest ally in Egypt. The United States has not publicly supported the coup, but the coup could ultimately provide Washington with more opportunities to effectively engage. But for that to help matters, Washington is going to have to do a much better job than it did in 2011 and 2012 in pushing the military toward respecting the rights of the popular forces that now embrace it and toward a rapid restoration of civilian rule and brokering of a meaningful political consensus.

American officials have over the last few years consistently, and correctly, focused on supporting a democratic process in Egypt without supporting any specific political force (including the Muslim Brotherhood, despite what too many Egyptians now believe). Barack Obama’s administration wanted to see democratic institutions take hold, with the Muslim Brotherhood included in the political process, but ultimately not dominant. That’s why so many American officials grew so deeply frustrated with the opposition for its seeming unwillingness or inability to organize for democratic politics, and with the Muslim Brotherhood for its unwillingness or inability to reach out to the opposition in order to build political consensus.

Success for the U.S. approach of supporting the democratic process would have meant seeing the Brotherhood punished at the ballot box for its political failures. Imagine if the forces that came out in the streets on June 30, in the demonstrations that precipitated Morsy’s overthrow, had instead turned out in the same numbers to vote against the Brotherhood’s parliamentary candidates. Such a parliament would have created the first genuine balance of power among elected institutions in Egyptian history and denied Morsy his recourse to exclusive electoral legitimacy. But an acceptable new election law bogged down between the Brotherhood’s ham-handed ambition and Egypt’s political dysfunction. Whether there could have been an electoral path toward checking Morsy’s power this year has become one more counterfactual that will never be tested.

While its focus on supporting a democratic transition was correct and should be sustained, there’s no doubt that the United States made many mistakes in Egypt over the last few years. One of the most frustrating was its failure to effectively communicate its policy or engage more broadly across Egyptian society. The wave of anti-American sentiments in the streets today, expressed most vividly in the posters denouncing Ambassador Anne Patterson, bear witness to those failures. True, it would never have been easy for Washington to defend its positions within Egypt’s intensely polarized and hypercharged media environment. But the administration could have tried harder to listen to Egyptian voices and engage their concerns — and to more consistently and publicly express its concerns about human rights, civil society, and tolerance.

The most prevalent, and damaging, myth enabled by this failure to communicate is that the Obama administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsy. That was never the case. It may not have been visible through the fog of Egypt’s political polarization, but there was never a great relationship between Washington and the Brotherhood, and certainly no alliance. The United States accepted the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic participation and Morsy’s electoral victory because it correctly viewed their inclusion in the political game as necessary to any meaningful Egyptian democracy. But accepting the Brotherhood’s political participation was not one of America’s mistakes in Egypt; indeed, that very participation will be essential in whatever new political leadership emerges — and in making sure that Morsy resists the powerful pressures to seek revenge that could trigger Mubarak-era repression, political bans, or worse.

Washington worked with the Muslim Brotherhood as an elected leadership and was right to do so, but that never translated into the kind of deeper alignment that many suspected. It’s true that Morsy’s help in securing a cease-fire during the short-lived Gaza conflict last November won some grudging respect in Washington, because it seemed to demonstrate that his pragmatism would outweigh his ideological preferences. But the enduring suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Washington gained traction as Morsy and his party failed in power. And any goodwill that Morsy had won in Washington this past winter was quickly squandered by his constitutional power grab, reports of human rights abuses, and the law ruling against foreign NGOs. Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian protesters were infuriated that Ambassador Patterson met with Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El Shater for three hours on the eve of the crisis. But the real problem was not the meeting, but that she was unable to persuade Shater and the Brotherhood to make the real concessions that might have prevented this crisis.

What now? There remains a very real, urgent risk of major violence and further political or even state collapse, of course. But even if the worst is avoided, Egypt faces a real risk of becoming trapped in an endless loop of failed governments, military interventions, and popular uprisings. The very idea of democratic legitimacy has taken a severe beating, and the coming constitutional reforms and new elections will not pass easily. Building real consensus behind genuinely democratic institutions has to remain the guiding light for U.S. policy and the Egyptian political class, no matter how difficult this appears.

That means finally establishing political rules and institutions that can end the pervasive uncertainty and fear that have dominated the entire transition. Egypt’s transition has been profoundly handicapped by the absence of any settled, legitimate rules of the game or institutional channels to settle political arguments. The procedural and substantive legitimacy of every step in the transition has been deeply contested, from the initial March 2011 constitutional referendum through the constitutional assembly and elections. The Supreme Constitutional Court’s dissolution of parliament on the eve of the presidential election left the new government with no legitimate legislative branch other than the weak Shura Council for which few had bothered to vote.

Many in Washington (including me) had hoped that the passage of a constitution, however badly flawed, would finally end the pervasive uncertainty and allow the consolidation of normal politics and effective governance. Obviously, it didn’t, in large part because of the Brotherhood’s reckless power grab to force through a document that enjoyed no consensus. The primary focus now should be on finally finding such a consensus on the path forward, whether through constitutional amendments or a national "round table" of the major political forces and societal groups. Without such a consensus and a clear pathway toward new elections, the patterns of political dysfunction will just continue to replay endlessly even as the faces and positions change.

Can that be achieved? Certainly, recent experience is not promising. The Egyptian military has already proved its own inability to effectively run the country, and military coups are rarely a viable pathway toward democracy or stability. The opposition has proved its ability to mobilize the streets around big focal-point issues like deposing Morsy, but remains as deeply internally divided as ever and has no common policy agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood has lost a lot of support but still commands a significant base that will feel deeply aggrieved, disenchanted with formal politics, and fearful for its personal safety. Other Islamists are playing their cards close to the vest, likely hoping to benefit from the Brotherhood’s failure, but have not likely abandoned their ideological goals. And the mobilization that led to June 30 has heightened polarization, mutual demonization, dehumanization, and fear.

Washington can’t do much to shape Egyptian politics right now, even if it tried. I remain deeply skeptical that the military coup will be a pathway to democracy or that the Egyptian military will be able to navigate the political waters any better today than it did in 2011. But Washington should use what influence it has to find ways to ensure that the political reset does not just repeat and entrench the mistakes of the past two and a half years — or make them worse.

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