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The Egyptian people rise up and overthrow Morsi - or was it the army..?

Egyptian women demonstrating in Cairo, July 1 (credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Just one year after Mohammed Morsi was sworn into office, Egypt’s army responds to popular protests by deposing the democratically elected president. How did we get here and can the army be trusted to return the country to a path of democracy?

On June 29, 2012, Tahrir Square erupted in cheers as Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, took office. On July 3, 2013, the square was once again packed with cheering Egyptians. This time, they were celebrating the military’s announcement that Morsi had been ousted, the constitution suspended and a senior judiciary figure appointed interim leader pending early elections. Meanwhile, Morsi was under house arrest.

A lot can happen in a year.

The day Morsi took office, he stood in front of the cheering crowd and opened his blazer to reveal that he was not wearing any protective gear. Stepping away from his panicked body guards, he charmed the crowd by announcing that he was not afraid because he was “one of the people.” This has always been the Muslim Brotherhood’s main claim to legitimacy — that it represents the real Egyptians. Not the city dwellers and not the liberal upper class, but the millions who live in slums, small towns and villages, struggling to make a living and adhering to a basically conservative Muslim lifestyle.

A few weeks after he took office, Morsi announced the forced retirement of several senior military officers. These included Field Marshall Tantawi, the defense minister who had headed SCAF, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which ruled Egypt for 18 months between the overthrow of Mubarak and the election of Morsi.

Readers might remember that the army committed many acts of tremendous brutality during that interim period. Hundreds of civilian protestors were tried in military courts and handed lengthy jail terms. Female protestors were subjected to a form of sexual assault called “virginity tests.” There was the Maspero Massacre, when the army opened fire on Coptic protestors, killing 20. There was the incident of the “girl in the blue bra,” who was stripped and beaten on the street by security forces. And so on.

No wonder, then, that so many Egyptians celebrated what they believed, or wanted to believe, was the democratically elected government asserting its authority and reducing the army’s power over the political realm. Meanwhile, some analysts warned that this was likely a back room power-sharing deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

Losing popular support

But over the following months Morsi and his Freedom and Justice party failed to capitalize on the initial popular goodwill that came flowing in their direction. In fact, they seemed to do just about everything to alienate everyone — the army, the liberals who had reluctantly voted for them (because the only other choice was a holdover from Mubarak’s regime) and even their popular electoral base.

In many cases, Morsi came across as authoritarian and incompetent. In November, for example, he announced that the presidency was above the law and not subject to judicial review. Protests ensued, with mass demonstrations in front of the presidential palace. Then Morsi retracted the announcement. On another occasion he suddenly announced massive tax increases, including huge raises in the prices of staple foods. Again, there was an uproar. And again, the announcement was rescinded — at 2 a.m., on the president’s Facebook page.

From there, things just kept on getting worse, with the government lurching from one crisis to another. There were gas shortages, electricity outages and the threat of a water crisis. Prices rose, unemployment remained high and the economic crisis worsened as tourists stayed away because the government failed to bring order and stability.

In a move that was reminiscent of Mubarak-style authoritarianism, the state’s general prosecutor charged Bassem Youssef, widely known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, with insulting the president and Islam. Youssef, who appeared several times on Stewart’s show and recently hosted the American comedian on his own program, which he modeled after “The Daily Show,” is famous for his skits that mock Morsi.

Meanwhile organized mass sexual assaults against women continued unchecked and the government was accused on more than one occasion of deploying Muslim Brotherhood thugs to beat up opposition demonstrators.

The tipping point

But the incident that was probably the turning point for the army occurred at a June 16 conference on the Syria crisis, during which Morsi sat by silently as radical Salafi clerics referred to Shiites as “infidels.” Morsi had previously called for military intervention in Syria. The army has no intention of getting involved in Syria.

Within a few days of the conference, a mob set upon four Egyptian Shi’ite men in Giza and lynched them. This incident was one of many that highlighted a rise in sectarian tensions under Morsi’s government, which in turn led to violence that attracted international condemnation.

Meanwhile, a liberal opposition group called Tamarod (Rebel) started a campaign calling for early elections. They set up an online petition in four languages and claimed they collected 22 million signatures. And they called for mass demonstrations against the government on June 30, the one-year anniversary of Morsi taking office. Egypt watchers on Twitter began appending the hashtag #tamorod to their tweets.

As June 30 approached, there were reports from Egypt of people leaving the country, withdrawing all their money from their bank accounts and stockpiling food. Others dismissed these stories as rumor-mongering and panic.

The ousting of an elected president

But it seems that few anticipated the scope of mass demonstrations that started all over the country on June 30. The revolution had been in the doldrums for months, with many doubting the opposition would muster the energy to oppose Morsi before his four-year term was up. Several international correspondents, however, said the June 30 demonstrations were visibly larger than the ones that preceded Mubarak’s resignation. And they erupted all over the country. Waving red cards that mimicked the penalty cards soccer referees show to indicate a player must leave a game, protesters shouted many familiar slogans, like “erhal” (leave), “houraya” (freedom”) and a variation of “the people demand the fall of the regime.”

There was violence, with anti-Morsi demonstrators attacking Muslim Brotherhood offices in Cairo and other locations. People were killed. At least 46 women were the victims of mob sexual attacks in Tahrir Square; many more probably went unreported. In a grassroots effort to keep women safer, an initiative called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment deployed volunteers in distinctive T-shirts, curated a dedicated Twitter page that collected at least 20,000 followers and updated their Facebook page with similar reports and information.

Then the army stepped in and issued an ultimatum to Morsi: resolve this political crisis within 48 hours, or we will step in and solve it ourselves.

If there was a deal between the army and Morsi, it fell apart. As Ben Hubbard wrote in the New York Times, “…the military looks out for itself above all else. It is not ideological, but is intensely politicized.”

As I describe here, Morsi and his supporters rejected the ultimatum. Which is why General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi — he’s the one who ordered the “virginity tests” carried out on female protestors — appeared on state television, wearing a uniform with his chest covered in medals, to announce that the army had deposed the government. Morsi would be replaced by the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adli Mansour, who will be the interim president pending elections.

Then the army moved in to raid and shut down Al Jazeera Arabic’s broadcast from Cairo, mid-broadcast, because Al Jazeera Arabic is regarded as biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood. They also shut down the Muslim Brotherhood’s TV station, Misr 25, even as they arrested at least 38 Muslim Brotherhood leaders. And as mentioned above, Morsi is under house arrest.

Can the army be trusted?

These repressive measures could be a red flag signaling the army’s intention of once again imposing a military dictatorship over Egypt, but most liberal Egyptians are cautiously optimistic. Many felt — and feel — that Morsi had become an elected autocrat who had to be gotten rid of. And if it took the army to get that job done, then so be it.

Now they hope for elections that will bring non-Islamist candidates to power. But in order for this to happen, the opposition will have to get organized — form parties, field candidates and articulate political platforms. So far, they have not succeeded in doing so. Which is why the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had 85 years of experience in political organizing, was so successful in the elections.

Many analysts are now warning of a crisis in the making. Egypt is deeply polarized. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was repressed and persecuted for years, has a legitimate grievance: their party was democratically elected, and has now been booted out of office by non-democratic means. In a speech the day before he was deposed, Morsi said he would give his blood for Egypt. One hopes he was only speaking metaphorically.

Meanwhile, there is another question: how is it that so many astute, seasoned Egypt analysts were so wrong in assessing the mass popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood? Only a small percentage of the millions who demonstrated over the past few days came from Egypt’s small elite. Most were from “the people” that Morsi claimed to represent – the conservative, religious Egyptian majority. His voter base. Perhaps they would have stayed loyal to Morsi if they had prospered under his rule. But when your country is almost on its knees under the weight of a major financial crisis, there is no gas for the car and no money to buy food, political allegiances change pretty quickly.

Between admiration and cynicism: Mixed opinions of the Egyptian revolution in Israel 

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    1. Ibnab

      I’m far from sharing the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, but 300 brotherhood members are under arrest including the leader and the pro brotherhood media are banned. I don’t think the next elections will more free than the elections under Mubarak’s rule.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        A question:

        What is the reason (in your opinion) behind the fact that there is no such thing as Arab Democracy in the world?

        Reply to Comment
        • NIZ

          What is the reason (in your opinion) behind the fact that Jews never assimilate with others?
          What is the reason (in your opinion) behind the fact that there is no such thing as Chinese Democracy in the world?
          What is the reason (in your opinion) behind the fact that there is no such thing as Russian Democracy in the World?

          I don’t know… it must be in the genes! You are a retard. 🙂

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Three rather stupid questions from a rather illiterate person who has permaban issued by Google and Wikipedia.

            1 – Jews do assimilate, which is why the Law Of Return is applicable only up to 3rd generation.

            2 – China was transitioned from a monarchistic empire to a communist empire without any democratic process.

            3 – Russia was was transitioned from a monarchistic empire to a communist empire without any democratic process as well, however in was democratic from the fall of the communism in 1990 up to 2000, when power was usurped by a KGB agent.

            By the way, there is only one Chinese state and only one Russian state, however there is over twenty Arab states, presumably populated by unique Arabs each.

            Reply to Comment
          • NIZ

            As usual you didn’t understand what I was saying. Please don’t let me stop you from spitting your anti-arab racism. Go ahead.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            As usual, you had said nothing worth understanding.

            Reply to Comment
        • Ibnab

          There was no such thing as French Democracy before the third republic (non including the colonial empire), a century after the French Revolution. The arab world has to overcome extremist ideologies just as the Western world has had to overcome communism and fascism. The extremist ideologies of the arab world are political Islam and authoritarian and xenophobic Arab nationalism that excludes or negates the cultures of the non arabic minorities (Kurdish and Assyrians in the Middle East, Berbers in North Africa)

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            But how could it be possible to overcome political Islam, if anyone who is saying anything against Islam is a heretic and should be killed – accordingly to Islam.

            The difference between the West is that MOST of Western countries were democracies at the time fascism existed.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Giora Me'ir

      To paraphrase JFK, those who make democracy impossible, make violence inevitable.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jitendra Desai

      Was he not an elected leader? If yes, is it not setting precedent for removal of all elected leaders in future like this? What if Brotherhood occupies Tehrir square against an elected leader in future.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Continued mass action disrupts the economy, enhancing volatility available for further mobilization. All organized sides seemed to think mobilization WAS democracy, but democracy requires the post election pacification of the population so installed elites can work. At best, in a year’s time one could not expect much economic improvement after the ousting of Mubarak. Instead, Goldman details acts almost designed to further polarization for mobilization. Mobilization became a way of acting socially as such; a new constitution, however, needs a coaltion of divergent interests to grow. Nor was the constitution fully defined: the old court system declared the drafting process of the constitution unconstitutional! All that is left is democracy as mobilization as revolution. The army will arrest and kill to stop the cycle.

      Reply to Comment
    5. shmuel

      Trespasser has a desperate life, that’s why he is so full of hatred.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ari

      If indeed 16m people protested, its the biggest mass protest ever. In ancient Athens, the city state polis, invented direct democracy. ‘All’ the citizens (no women, no slaves) came and voted directly. As our societies grew into huge multi-million nation states, this system didn’t work….couldn’t get all citizens into a stadium. Hence representative democracy…we elect people to decide for us. So now, is Tahrir Square June/July 2013, an Athens polis type vote of the people? Not an election the problematic Egyptian constitution requires….but a strong national (other cities too) signal that Morsi has not represented the will of the original Tahrir revolutionaries? And of course will the next phase of this revolutionary process deliver a government and constitution that represents the overthrowers of Mubarak?

      Reply to Comment
    7. unfortunately the picture presented in the article is more of a wishful thinking that the reality – the article by the NYTimes today clarifies that the forces of the old regime (Al Fulul) and the bussiness community were very active in disrupting the economy and the civil order and gas and electricity supply and supported the campaign of Tammarud so as to prepare the ground for the Army. all this shows that it was a military Coup and not a popular revolution.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Lisa Goldman

      Hey Assaf, I read the NYT article. Indeed, a lot of new information is coming to light now. But what, precisely, is “wishful thinking” in my article?

      Reply to Comment
      • Hi Lisa, my reservations from your article was not so much of the accurate sequence of events you presented but the the general idea that says that is the left and secular forces take the advantage of the opportunity now and organize unions and parties there can be a positive result of the military coup. you mention that they did not do it before which is absolutely true and probably the reason why they were ready to support the army.
        i tend to believe that what we saw was a military and Fulul – Mubarak forces – take over. The financial support of the Saudis is another indicator. Things develop so fast in Egypt and peoples positions change so we will all be able to see soon what will come out of this.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Assaf, nowhere do I reduce the recent sequence of events in Egypt to a binary – and erroneous – left/liberal versus right/MB. In fact, I specifically write in the last paragraph that only a small percentage of the millions who demonstrated against Morsi last week came from the liberal elite.

      ” Only a small percentage of the millions who demonstrated over the past few days came from Egypt’s small elite. Most were from “the people” that Morsi claimed to represent – the conservative, religious Egyptian majority. His voter base.”

      So please be careful about ascribing to me views that I do not and never have advocated.

      Meanwhile, you might be interested in an Egyptian blogger’s response to the New York Times article you linked to in your first comment:

      Reply to Comment
    10. Assaf Adiv

      Hello Lisa,
      I think that the discussion on the deposition of Morsi from power should focus on the question: what were the internal and external forces behind this move and what is the nature of the new regime headed formally by Adli Mansour but effectively by General Sisi and the army. no one can argue that millions in the streets and those who signed the petitions were ordinary people that for sure include many Morsi and MB former supporters.
      But the public mood could not bring Morsi dowm just by walking the streets. My point was that strong forces worked behind the scene in the last months and that left&progressive forces who oppose the MB should have been aware of not falling into the trap of being outflanked by stronger reactionary forces that wanted just to exploit the public mood in order to bring back the old regime.
      the blog by Rawah Badrawi you refer to is bringing some question marks on the specific facts and information brought by the NYT in their article. Rawan did not refute the facts – she did not refute the funding of Tamarood by Sawiris for example. I saw today an interview with Najib Sawiris in ONTV (his TV station) and i got the impression that the NYT was absolutely to the point here.
      the fact that everybody in the left and civil opposition feels today betrayed by Adli Mansur and his constitutional decree is another fact that shows that what we had was a reactionary coup. this is how is see it at least.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Sue

      I am a London based journalist. Was very impressed by this article on the Egyptian revolution which I read as part of my research in to a book project. I was so impressed, I tried to make a donation. But you did not accept my UK phone number. You could be missing out?

      Reply to Comment