Who Won the Coup?

Egypt is a mess, but at least Bashar al-Assad is happy.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Roman historian Tacitus was right. The best day after the death of a bad emperor is probably the first day.

The Egyptian military’s do-over coup against the Morsy government and the Muslim Brotherhood exhilarated and thrilled millions of Egyptians.

But a move against a democratically elected government — regardless of how incompetent, dysfunctional, and misdirected — carries serious consequences for the future of Egypt and the region.

So who won and who lost?

Egypt the movie has been playing for about five millennia now. And it’s way too early to make definitive predictions. Right now, there can be no undisputed winners. Still, there are some parties that have fared better than others. Call them "winners with asterisks." Losers are a bit easier to identify. So let’s have a go.

Winners with Asterisks

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): Let’s give credit where credit is due. Amid the dysfunction and incompetence that seem to dominate the region, the Egyptian military really did know how to pull off a coup — quickly, relatively bloodlessly, and with tough, aggressive, and apparently effective follow-up.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood struck back with large street demonstrations that turned violent. Whether this challenge can be sustained is unclear; but it has put the two least democratic forces in the country on a collision course, with the public backing the army. Indeed, so far the military has the support and encouragement of the vast majority of those Egyptians who took to the streets in recent days.

But let’s not kid ourselves either. Orchestrating a coup is one thing; governing and transitioning to democracy is another. Last time around, the military was responsible for bumbling, fumbling, and downright cruelty — imposing "virginity tests" on women, detaining and imprisoning thousands on political grounds, and killing Egyptians.

And this time the SCAF has bought itself a much tougher assignment. Pressuring Mubarak the authoritarian may not have been simple, but leading another transition to democratic rule and delivering on good governance at the same time may be mission impossible.

Expectations will be running high: get the economy back on track; fix the security situation but pay attention to human rights and the rule of law; preside over a civilian transition process that can draft a credible constitution and a new electoral law; and allow fair and free parliamentary and then presidential elections.

And who is going to do all this? An interim government headed by a mild-mannered jurist, who will be contending with a divided and unorganized secular and liberal opposition; a sullen, aggrieved, and angry group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters; and a large, powerful, and anti-democratic Egyptian bureaucracy left over from the Mubarak days that wants to preserve its status.

Indeed, the real challenge may be that the military doesn’t want to run the country. Who would? It wants to preserve its privileges, yet it will have no choice but to remain the dominant power in the country until some more credible structure can be found. And even if the uniforms don’t govern, they will still reign over national security policy with their offline budget and special economic and financial advantages. And what kind of democracy will that be?

The Egyptian Public (or at least a fair portion of it): Egypt was headed for failed-state status under a badly managed post-Mubarak transition and the authoritarian and incompetent behavior of the Morsy government. So, in another dramatic demonstration of sheer popular will, the people, aided by a handful of social media activists, took to the streets to put their collective foot down. The Morsy government recognized that red light too late; the military saw it earlier and, when it turned green, created a new reality.

Will this new reality prove better than the old one? And will it bring more prosperity, more security, and a semblance of democratic life? Right now, there’s no way to know. Before July 3, Egypt was headed for a dead end. Now, Egypt has another shot to get things right. Still, the street by itself can’t deliver a better future. The street expresses what people want. Politics and governance is what they get. The key unknown is whether the secular, liberal, and Islamist opposition that opposed Morsy can take advantage of the new political space and opportunity the people have provided.

Al Qaeda’s Minions: One hope loosed by the so-called Arab Spring was that Islamist parties would be able to participate in the new democratic politics and that, if they played by the rules, they would be able to gain power through ballots not bullets. A moderate, centrist, political Islam would serve as a rebuke to al Qaeda’s worldview. I remember analysts in 2011 and 2012 making a big deal of this point as millions of Arabs forced the region’s authoritarians to cede power largely through nonviolence. This seemed a very important development, turning the extremists’ millennial philosophy on its head.

Well, now the people have done it again, although this time they have thrown out a freely and fairly elected Islamist party. And the military is finishing the job by arresting opponents, closing offices, and taking over media outlets. If this continues, score one for the bad guys. Extremists everywhere will proclaim "I told you so," and they will soon have even greater success in their attempts to sow anger, despair, and violence. A new myth — that there can be no compromise with peaceful politics — will empower Islamists, and 2013 will emerge as another milestone in the never-ending secular conspiracy to deny Islam its rightful place.

Bashar al-Assad: Assad must be having a good chuckle. Egypt is a huge distraction from the Syrian civil war, and the more preoccupied the international community is with other messes, the less it will focus on the one he’s making.

More than that, the Egyptian people and the military are hammering the Muslim Brotherhood, the very same terrorists and extremists Assad claims were the real cause of the rebellion against his rule. In his warped conception of reality, he and his military are defending Syria against the same enemies that Egypt is fighting now. In fact, if the SCAF’s move against the Egyptian Brothers leads to more radicalism in the Syrian opposition, so much the better for Assad’s propaganda machine.

Israel: For the Israelis, the only thing worse than the Morsy government was an Egypt with no government. Throughout it all, the Israelis have maintained their close ties to the Egyptian military. So for now, I’d put the Israelis in the "win" column. Maybe the Egyptian military will be induced to pay greater attention to lawless Sinai; and certainly Israel won’t object to a less friendly approach to Hamas in Gaza. Still, whatever the future brings — military government or democratic polity — the Egyptian-Israeli relationship will remain a cold one, pending some resolution of the Palestinian issue.

The Losers

Morsy and the Brothers: I dare say there will be no second act for Mohamed Morsy in Egyptian politics. He’s got no charisma, no political smarts, and no credible case to make for a political future. It’s more than likely jail, exile, or the underground for him — a fate that may await the top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, too. Could the military show magnanimity by offering the Brothers a way back, a role in the reconciliation process and in the democratic transition that we hope will follow? It would be a smart play. Would Morsy and the Brothers accept junior status in the next governing structure? What if they chose to compete in the next parliamentary elections and won a sizeable number of seats?

We’re dreaming if we believe we’ve seen the last of the Brothers. Egypt is a traditional Muslim country. And however incompetent the Brotherhood was at governance, it can organize and do politics. The Brotherhood not only retains the capacity to use violence, it will retain influence if the military stumbles and the more secular and liberal opposition can’t deliver. Remember, the Brothers play the long game. And in analyzing what went wrong with Morsy 1.0, the senior leadership may well decide to return to that strategy.

Hamas: The travails of Morsy and the Brothers will erode the deep bench of Islamists that Hamas in Gaza thought it was assembling in its effort to consolidate control, oppose Fatah, and play its own long game. With Assad embattled and Turkey’s Erdogan under pressure at home, Hamas is left with Iran and Qatar as its only semi-reliable supporters. The Egyptian military has already closed the Rafah border crossing, and there’s no doubt there will be more tough times ahead for the Palestinian Islamists. But if the past is any guide, those tough times won’t be painful enough to force Hamas to moderate its views on a real partnership with Fatah. Still, if the so-called peace process actually moves forward, Morsy’s ouster could strengthen Abbas’ hand as he seeks to co-opt and outmaneuver Hamas.

Anne Patterson: Full disclosure, I know and admire Anne Patterson, who has been serving as the U.S. ambassador in Cairo for two years. She’s smart and capable. And as a result of President Obama’s confused policies, she’s a convenient target for the "Who lost Egypt?" attacks by Republicans and others. If the Egyptian public believed Obama was in bed with the Brothers, that’s not her fault — a few badly timed public statements about faith in elections rather than anti-Morsy protests notwithstanding.

We believe in the ballot box. The administration’s instincts about the Brothers turned out to be wrong. The Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t going to become inclusive or more moderate under the pressure of governing — just the opposite. As they were attacked by the opposition, the conspiratorial mindset they had developed over years of living underground kicked in. Washington either couldn’t or didn’t want to see this. Anne Patterson isn’t the reason we didn’t get our Egypt policy right. But I’m concerned that, like former Ambassador April Glaspie, who was unfairly blamed for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, she’ll take the hit.

The United States: I really struggled with where to put the Obama administration: Did it win or lose when Mubarak fell? And is it winning or losing now, after the SCAF coup? The Suez Canal is open; the U.S.-Egyptian military and intelligence relationship is intact; the peace treaty with Israel survives.

And, yet, there’s something not right about U.S. policy toward Egypt. We are disliked by just about everyone. Maybe we were too weak the first time around in telling the military that it needed to do a better job of managing the transition democratically. We were definitely too slow in making our views known about Morsy’s ham-handed governance.

And, now, as we wrestle with how to react to the SCAF’s coup, we still can’t find the balance between protecting our interests and speaking up for our values. Perhaps they will always remain at war with one another, particularly in a situation where stability, however superficial, plays such an important role in our thinking. We may have learned something from our years of dancing with Egypt’s military. And perhaps we’ll be tougher with our partner this time around. But we will keep dancing — and probably cheek-to-cheek.

The Future

The more I think about the balance sheet in Egypt, the more it seems to me that there are no quick or easy solutions, just outcomes; no unqualified winners, just those who manage to survive and stay on top — sometimes for a good long while.

If the Egyptian people are ever to really win, they’ll need three things that they just don’t have right now: leaders who think in terms of what’s best for the country, not just for their narrow religious or corporatist group; institutions that are legitimate, inclusive, and accountable; and some mechanism that can contain the most divisive and volatile debates so that they don’t spill out into the streets, paralyze the country, and lead to violence.

I don’t see that now. But perhaps someday. And then we’ll be able to prove Tacitus wrong.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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