Egypt's Battle of Legitimacy

The military, the Islamists, the revolutionaries and Mubarak's old buddies lock horns.

The overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi has placed the Obama administration in a no-win situation. It does not want to call the military intervention a coup, because current U.S. law would require the suspension of aid to Egypt, including the $1.3 billion going to military. But it cannot avoid calling it a coup without undermining the credibility of its commitment to democracy.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns faced the dilemma when he visited Cairo early this week. He was received by the military anxious to maintain aid and by the civilians the military put in power. But he was shunned by Islamists accusing the United States of betraying a legitimately elected government and by the leaders of the anti-Morsi Tamarrod movement for not recognizing that the legitimacy of the revolutionary street trumps that of the ballot box.

In support of Burns’ latter argument, anti-Islamist Egyptians have enthusiastically accepted the absurd claim that thirty million Egyptians took to the streets to demand Morsi’s removal, while only twenty million had voted for him in the elections. Thirty million, for those needing help in wrapping their mind around the figure, is more than the combined population of the eighteen largest U.S. cities.

Ever since the overthrow of Mubarak, four groups have been struggling for power, using different tools and different concepts of legitimacy to advance their claims. The four are the military, the Islamists, the old political-economic establishment that thrived under the Mubarak regime, and the so-called revolutionaries. The military and the Islamists won the first round of the struggle. In the current round, the military and the old elite are prevailing. The so-called revolutionaries, together with a small number of people who appear to truly uphold liberal principles, have been instrumental in the turnovers of power in February 2011 and July 2013. However, they appear unable to influence subsequent developments.

The military’s instrument in the struggle for power is force. It did not use it on a large scale in 2011 or currently, but it is the potential use of force that has allowed it to arrest and depose Morsi and to round up the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its claim to legitimacy, hence its denial that it carried out a coup, is based on the idea that it simply acted in support of the demands of the millions who took to the streets. The people impeached the president by taking to the streets, and the military implemented their decision.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s instrument has been the ballot box. Together with other Islamist parties, including the largest Salafi organization (al-Nour), it won a decisive 70 percent of the seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and won the presidency by a narrow margin. It has subsequently used its power clumsily and unwisely, but not as dictatorially as its opponents claim—winning a majority is supposed to give a party more right to govern than its opponents, after all. With the ballot box on their side, Islamists inevitably take the position that only elections grant legitimacy, and thus argue that Morsi must be reinstated. This will not happen—this much is clear even in the present murky situation—and the Islamists do not know where to go from here, except by taking to the streets.

The old establishment's instrument is the control it still has on the institutions, including the courts, the top level of the bureaucracy and the media. It used the courts to dismiss the parliament and tried to use them to block the constitution and even disband the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (lawsuits to this effect are pending in the courts). It used the control over the top levels of the bureaucracy to create problems for the Brotherhood—the instantaneous disappearance of gasoline lines and electricity blackouts following Morsi’s deposition suggests that there was more than administrative incompetence behind the problems.

As for claims to legitimacy, it is difficult to find an explicit argument, but implicitly they seem to be based on competence: only the members of the old establishment have the experience and the technocratic skills to save the country from the ruinous decline it suffered at the hands of incompetent—and, in most recent accusations, corrupt and criminal—Islamists. Although Egyptian media imply that the members of the old establishment are the country’s true democrats, and refer to them as “liberals and leftists,” they have been quite happy to be handed power by the military. The number of people willing to even ask whether military intervention is the road to democracy has been stunningly small.

The so-called “revolutionaries” have one tool, mobilizing people in the street, but so far they have not shown the capacity to go beyond protest. They do not have control over force, the backing of elections results, or control institutions. They do not have governing experience and they are not technocrats. They embrace a concept of legitimacy based on direct street action and are naive enough to believe that direct mobilization of crowds is a road to democracy. There is a new refrain in Egypt that if Germans had resisted Hitler in the streets rather than accepting election results, the world would have escaped a catastrophe. This argument blithely ignores the role of street mobilization in the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and assorted other dictators. Revolutionary legitimacy means different things to different people, and the outcome does not necessarily match what idealistic youth have in mind.

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