Shadow Government

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The Long, Slow, Chaotic Process of Egypt’s Transition

There are worse things than a coup. For example, there is Egypt under the sway of a Muslim Brotherhood government bent on implementing an Iranian-style regime and animated by a president’s inexperience, incompetence, and emotional insecurity. I realize I’m practicing psychology without a license on that last one, but it does appear Mohamed Morsy’s stubbornness ...

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

There are worse things than a coup. For example, there is Egypt under the sway of a Muslim Brotherhood government bent on implementing an Iranian-style regime and animated by a president's inexperience, incompetence, and emotional insecurity. I realize I'm practicing psychology without a license on that last one, but it does appear Mohamed Morsy's stubbornness over the last year stems from a desperate need to assert himself and put himself beyond the criticism of his Salafi partners. It is hard to tell whether that is more of a personal need or a political one, but suffice it to say, he is no Nelson Mandela.

What has happened in Egypt over the last two and a half years through today (and it will continue for a good while) is what it looks like when a Muslim-majority nation-state with no history of self-government actually tries to democratize. There likely will be only two effective and organized players on the field: the military and the predominant religio-political (or is that the politico-religious) organization. If there will be order -- democratic or otherwise -- it will be because these two battle it out and one wins and the other loses; the West will hope that the winner promotes democracy. It is not pretty, it takes a long time, and there are the inevitable fits and starts. And if there is not a military that can stand apart from the political scrambling, you have Gaza. Some would argue that Egypt today, with all its problems, is in far better shape than Gaza, which is now in its seventh year of Hamas misrule.

Let's be clear: No matter what blame we assign to the military or the "fecklessness" of the Egyptian people, Morsy's choices made everything worse and made himself part of the problem. He was such a terrible president that he lost apparently not only some of his own Islamist voters but also the support of some leaders in his own party. The Muslim Brotherhood began to lose credibility and the reserve of trust that comes with that credibility the moment it ran a candidate for president. It didn't help that the man the Muslim Brotherhood ran was known as the movement's "spare tire." Once they achieved the presidency with only the barest of majorities, they did nothing to solve the problems Egyptians care about most: the economy and crime. To make matters worse, they offended the huge and ever-growing number of better-educated, better-connected, and younger Egyptians who having tasted their political power are not willing to give it up. By claiming autocratic powers for himself, ramming a radical sharia-based constitution through a parliament whose election lacked public support, removing members of the judiciary, and appointing provincial governors without consultations, he sowed the seeds of an uprising. At this point, he'd have no one to turn to in order to keep his government in power but the military -- which he had humiliated as one of his first acts in power.

There are worse things than a coup. For example, there is Egypt under the sway of a Muslim Brotherhood government bent on implementing an Iranian-style regime and animated by a president’s inexperience, incompetence, and emotional insecurity. I realize I’m practicing psychology without a license on that last one, but it does appear Mohamed Morsy’s stubbornness over the last year stems from a desperate need to assert himself and put himself beyond the criticism of his Salafi partners. It is hard to tell whether that is more of a personal need or a political one, but suffice it to say, he is no Nelson Mandela.

What has happened in Egypt over the last two and a half years through today (and it will continue for a good while) is what it looks like when a Muslim-majority nation-state with no history of self-government actually tries to democratize. There likely will be only two effective and organized players on the field: the military and the predominant religio-political (or is that the politico-religious) organization. If there will be order — democratic or otherwise — it will be because these two battle it out and one wins and the other loses; the West will hope that the winner promotes democracy. It is not pretty, it takes a long time, and there are the inevitable fits and starts. And if there is not a military that can stand apart from the political scrambling, you have Gaza. Some would argue that Egypt today, with all its problems, is in far better shape than Gaza, which is now in its seventh year of Hamas misrule.

Let’s be clear: No matter what blame we assign to the military or the "fecklessness" of the Egyptian people, Morsy’s choices made everything worse and made himself part of the problem. He was such a terrible president that he lost apparently not only some of his own Islamist voters but also the support of some leaders in his own party. The Muslim Brotherhood began to lose credibility and the reserve of trust that comes with that credibility the moment it ran a candidate for president. It didn’t help that the man the Muslim Brotherhood ran was known as the movement’s "spare tire." Once they achieved the presidency with only the barest of majorities, they did nothing to solve the problems Egyptians care about most: the economy and crime. To make matters worse, they offended the huge and ever-growing number of better-educated, better-connected, and younger Egyptians who having tasted their political power are not willing to give it up. By claiming autocratic powers for himself, ramming a radical sharia-based constitution through a parliament whose election lacked public support, removing members of the judiciary, and appointing provincial governors without consultations, he sowed the seeds of an uprising. At this point, he’d have no one to turn to in order to keep his government in power but the military — which he had humiliated as one of his first acts in power.

So, Egypt is ugly right now (it was never going to be a pretty transition to democracy), but it didn’t have to be this ugly: That’s Morsy’s fault. The military, along with various members of the opposition, has a chance to do what Morsy and the Brotherhood refused to do: govern Egypt in the interests of all Egyptians. It was telling to see the different religious and secular elements present at Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement of the military’s "path forward."

Many pundits have been questioning the efficacy and desirability of the Arab Spring and democracy support generally, and they accuse democracy supporters of hypocrisy if they accept the inevitability of a coup during these transitions. But this criticism sounds like the typical criticism leveled by those who are still attacking George W. Bush (from the left as well as the right) and from those who think democracy is unachievable for some peoples. I’ll ignore the politics-based criticism for now and simply note as a refutation to all those who say that Arabs can’t have a democracy: For the first time in history, and for over two years, it is the Egyptian people who have been deciding the fate of their country, and that’s a good start. They are doing so the only way they can in their circumstances that for now includes a risky role for the military. Give them a break: It isn’t Sweden, and there are no Mandelas or Washingtons.

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.

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