By Alex Kane · 4 Jul 2013
The Egyptian street has erupted once again. Two and a half years after the revolution that overthrew longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak captivated the world and fundamentally changed the Middle East, another massive shock to the Egyptian political system is unfolding.
After a year of rule by President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed politician who won Egypt’s first-ever free and democratic elections last year, ordinary Egyptians have had enough. Responding to a grassroots campaign called “Tamarod”--which means rebel in Arabic--millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets across the Arab world’s most populous nation. They’ve protested in Cairo, the capital; in towns south of Cairo; in the port city of Alexandria; and elsewhere. They are united by one demand: Morsi should go--and he has now gone.
The Egyptian military, the most powerful institution in the country, has forcefully stepped in. On July 1, the armed forces issued an ultimatum that gave Morsi 48 hours to respond to the protesters’ demands--or else be forced from office. The intervention raised the specter of a military coup and a return to military rule—and the specter turned into reality July 3. The military has deployed on the streets in what can only be described a coup, albeit a popular coup. The military intervention has immense popular support among the protesters. The Egyptian armed forces announced July 3 that Morsi has been deposed, and that a new political roadmap would be followed.
“No country advances when the society is divided like this,” Wael Ghonim, a key player in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, said on YouTube, according to TIME. “And the main role of the president of the republic is to unite, but, unfortunately, Dr. Morsi, the president of the republic, has miserably failed to do this.”
Fed up with an ailing economy, authoritarianism and a political process exclusively shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood, the masses in Egypt have forced Morsi out. Protesters' anger has exploded as Muslim Brotherhood offices have been burned to the ground, and the party's headquarters looted and ransacked. But the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a player in the 2011 revolution, is not likely to go quietly. Muslim Brotherhood activists have also taken to the streets, defending the party's headquarters and holding counter-rallies. At least 39 people have been killed in clashes between the opposing sides. An American English teacher caught up in the conflict in Alexandria was also killed June 28. In addition, at least one journalist was killed, one raped and seven injured.
The continued polarization in Egypt and the military’s renewed threats to intervene could spell disaster for a country struggling to get on its feet after 30 years of misrule, corruption and human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime.
What does this renewed revolt all mean, and where is it going? What are the roots of the crisis, and what does it mean for the region?
To help explain it all, here are 5 things you should know to understand the current political convulsions in Egypt.
1. Morsi’s Missteps
There are a number of factors fueling the current unrest in Egypt. But the first and most immediate factor is the Islamist leader’s missteps throughout his one-year rule.
Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was jailed by the Mubarak regime, wasn’t elected by overwhelming consensus. He only garnered about 52 percent of the total presidential vote in a contest that pitted him against a Mubarak regime stalwart, Ahmed Shafiq. So he came into office with a slim majority--but he ended up governing like the whole nation loved him, despite vowing in his inaugural address to act as “a servant to the people.”
Some members of the revolutionary camp celebrated Morsi’s win at first, though others distrusted the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretive nature. But a consensus has slowly emerged among non-Islamist political actors that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have become anti-democratic forces intent on consolidating their power.
On November 22, 2012, Morsi issued a decree that effectively placed his decisions above and beyond any court until a new Constitution and parliament governing the nation were put in place. His reason for doing so was to protect the assembly drafting a new post-Mubarak Constitution from influence from a judiciary with ties to the old regime. But the decree was met with massive protests from the opposition, members of the judiciary and those who led the revolution, and Morsi was forced to back down on some of his power grab. Still, Morsi wasn’t done ramming his party’s vision for Egypt down the throats of the population at large.
At the end of the month, Egypt’s Constituent Assembly rushed to pass through what many saw as a flawed Constitution that would replace the temporary one drafted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leaders who ran the country after Mubarak and who ceded power to Morsi when he was sworn in as president. The Constituent Assembly was already plagued by problems, most notably the walkout of non-Islamist members who felt that the Constitution would trample the rights of secularists, women, the press and workers. Despite the walkout, the Constitution was passed by the Islamist-dominated assembly. The Constitution was put to a referendum, and it passed easily, though turnout was low.
All of these crucial decisions by Morsi came as the Egyptian economy continued to implode. Instability has driven away investors and tourists, and unemployment, inflation and debt have increased. A recent fuel shortage has put the country on edge.
2. Brutality Against Opponents of Morsi
Brutality against demonstrators and opposition forces have continued in Morsi’s Egypt, despite the fact that one of the major drivers of the 2011 revolution was police brutality and impunity.
The paradigmatic event on this front occurred in December 2012. Protests against the impending vote on the Constitution had broken out. One opposition protest gathered outside the presidential palace, and pro-Morsi demonstrators were called on to defend the palace. Violence broke out on both sides, and eight members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed. But torture and abuse were also inflicted on anti-Morsi demonstrators by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, which recalled for many Egyptians how the Mubarak regime had used paid thugs to intimidate opponents.
Islamists detained and beat dozens of the protesters and held them for hours with their hands bound. They then delivered the demonstrators to the Egyptian police, a security force that is feared and despised by much of the population.
The Egyptian police have continued to be on the front line of the repression of demonstrators during Morsi’s regime. But the relationship has also been characterized by tension between the police and Morsi. The police, long used to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, resent being used to suppress opposition to Morsi. Some members of the police who once defended Mubarak’s regime are now protesting against Morsi, and security forces have been noticeably absent from the current demonstrations and have not protected Muslim Brotherhood headquarters.
3. The Military’s Role
The Egyptian military, an opaque institution, is playing a crucial role in the current crisis. Backed by U.S. military aid and protective of their own economic interests, they essentially function as a state within a state.
The armed forces have been buttressed since 1979 by U.S. military aid, receiving about $1.3 billion annually since 1987. The money has gone to buy fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and more. The aid, which will keep flowing as long as they maintain a peace treaty with Israel, has helped make the military a formidable force.
The armed forces stepped into the role of state rulers after they nudged Mubarak from power in 2011. They directly ruled over Egypt until Morsi was elected president, a a period marked by authoritarianism and human rights abuses. Still, they remain a popular force among the population, as can be seen by the chants of “the people and the army are one hand” that have echoed throughout the demonstrations. Morsi has tried to exert some authority over the military, dismissing the head of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leaders who directly ruled after Mubarak's ouster, last August. But the new military rulers appointed by Morsi have now forced the democratically elected president out, with the consent of the majority of the population. Call it a popular coup. The military is now once again seen as the savior of the revolution.
On July 1, they gave Morsi an ultimatum--respond to the protesters, or step down. Morsi refused to accede to the military’s demands late July 2, saying that he was democratically elected and was the legitimate ruler of Egypt. That battle over the future of Egypt came to a head on July 3, when the military stepped in, sent tanks to the streets and placed travel bans on Morsi and other top Muslim Brotherhood officials. The military then deposed Morsi, and announced a path forward. The armed forces have stipulated that the Constitution passed under Morsi is suspended; that the head justice of the Constitutional Court is now interim president; and that new presidential elections will take place. In response, protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square erupted in jubilation and set off fireworks.
The Muslim Brotherhood has threatened to take to the streets in the event of a military-directed transition. What remains to be seen is whether an escalation in violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing forces will break out as a result.
4. The Opposition
The diverse coalition driving the protest against Morsi is made up of the revolutionary camp--including liberals and leftists--ordinary Egyptians who support the military and, more strikingly, members of the old Mubarak regime.
Some have expressed wariness with other Egyptians’ support of the military. The army has been denounced by revolutionaries in Egypt for presiding over human rights abuses like torture and military trials of civilians. It also drew the ire of protesters when they killed 28 Coptic Christians in October, 2011, during a protest in Cairo. But the Tamarod campaign, which spearheaded the current protests, has praised the military. “The army responding to the demands of the people crowns our movement,” said Tamarod spokesperson Mahmoud Badr, in welcoming the army's warning of intervention.
An intervention by the military might deliver some power to the opposition--a prospect the army could welcome as long as they maintain their own power.
5. America’s Response
The U.S. has always played a crucial role in Egyptian politics. Since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, U.S. military aid has bought leverage over the Egyptian military.
But the relationship’s contours have changed somewhat since the revolution broke out. While the Obama administration initially continued to support Mubarak during the early days of the mass revolt, they quickly changed their tune once they realized that he was on his way out with the military nudging Mubarak along. They paid lip service to the democratic process, all the while bolstering the Egyptian military--a thoroughly undemocratic institution.
America’s continued ties to the military have allowed the U.S. to retain influence in the Egyptian government. At the same time, they have engaged the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime. This has enraged the protesters on the street, who see the U.S. as having a hand in Morsi’s power grabs and continued rule. This makes for an ironic situation: the Egyptian protesters who once saw the U.S. as keeping Mubarak in power now see the U.S. as backing Morsi, the leader of a movement bitterly opposed to Mubarak.
The U.S. has not showed its hand directly in the current Egyptian crisis. Publicly, officials have said that the U.S. does not favor one political side over another in Egypt. They have stressed to Morsi that the protesters must be allowed to demonstrate peacefully.
But CNN reported yesterday that the U.S. has essentially sided with Egypt’s military, and told Morsi that new elections should be announced. While the U.S. has also warned against a direct military takeover, the officials who spoke to CNN made clear that America is supporting the military’s ultimatum. While U.S. law dictates that aid can't flow to a coup government, the State Department has so far refused to characterize the military intervention as a coup.