Egypt in Crisis

Possibilities and hopes are diverging as protests and military threats rock Cairo.

The massive demonstrations in Egypt that started on June 30 are eerily reminiscent of those that ended the thirty-year regime of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Once again, Egyptians are marching in the streets demanding that the president resign.

But Egyptians are no longer united in their desire for change: an almost unbridgeable gulf separates the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists, who won elections and thus feel entitled to govern, from the opposition that argues that “revolutionary legitimacy” trumps election results. President Morsi’s opponents are a heterogeneous mixture of young self-styled revolutionaries, who can mobilize people but do not appear to have a plan to move forward; old establishment figures who believe they are entitled to rule because they always did; ordinary Egyptians crushed by a deteriorating economy that has made their chronically marginal lives ever more miserable; and a minority of genuine liberals who would like democracy but are choosing to side with the devil they know rather than facing the Islamists. The mood of the demonstrations is grim, not festive as it was in 2011.

One thing has not changed: once again, the future of the country is in the hands of the military, as it has been at all critical junctures since Egypt’s 1952 military coup d’état and the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was the military, not the crowds in the streets, that forced Mubarak to resign in 2011; and it appears that once again it is the military that will attempt to find a solution. In an announcement on July 1, the military gave the two sides forty-eight hours to find a way forward on their own, before issuing its own guidelines.

The military could indeed provide a way forward for Egypt, but only if it plays the role of honest broker. Islamists and secularists do not trust each other and have hardened their positions: Islamists insist they won a fair contest and that Morsi must serve out his term or, at most, allow the public to make that decision in a referendum. Secularists gave Morsi until Tuesday this week to resign and vow to remain in the streets until he does so. The chances that the two sides can find a compromise on their own appear nonexistent.

So far, the military has given no clear indication of how it will proceed. In theory, it could seize power and govern directly; it could force Morsi to hand over power to the opposition; or it could force all sides to compromise—a tall order in a country where many are proud of their unwillingness to bend.

An outright military take over for a second transitional period is the least likely outcome. Head of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi and other high-ranking officers have stated repeatedly that they do not want to govern the country, but only to save it from chaos. There is no reason to doubt their statements. The military wants to protect its autonomy and privileges but does not like to be in the front line of political activity. The experience of the 2011–2012 period was a difficult one for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, distracting it from its military duties, particularly in Sinai, and exposing it to criticism. Furthermore, the international community would condemn the ousting of an elected leader as a coup d’état. The United States, which provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid annually, has undoubtedly made it quite clear that military rule is no longer acceptable.

Much of the opposition wants the military to depose Morsi and turn over power to them, under the thin disguise of a government of technocrats. It is not a new demand. Already before the 2011-12 parliamentary elections, some in the secular camp tried to convince the military to hand over presidential power to a prominent secular figure—Mohamed ElBaradei was mentioned—postponing all elections for a long period. The military did not go along, and held parliamentary and presidential elections, both of which were won by Islamists. In a highly political decision, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the parliament, claiming the election law was unconstitutional.

Now the opposition is hoping that the military will also void the outcome of the presidential elections by handing over power to them. This would be a dangerous route for the military to follow for many reasons. First, it would cause a strong reaction by Islamists, replacing the massive demonstrations by secular forces with massive demonstrations by Islamists. Security forces, which in the last few days have kept off the streets even when demonstrators were setting fire to offices of the Muslim Brothers, would undoubtedly intervene against Islamists, and there could be much violence. It is also not clear that the international community would conclude that the deposition of an elected president is not a military coup as long as the military hands over power to civilians. Finally, there is also a possibility that a decision by the military to side openly with the secular opposition would cause some strife in the ranks of the military.

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