Yesterday, democratically elected President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi was forced from office, along with his Freedom and Justice Party – a group with strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic religious-conservative organisation. The military seized control of a country riddled with qualms regarding the motivation and methods of the ruling party, which expressed intent to ‘Islamise’ Egyptian society and was criticised for not acting in the best interests of the population. The world is currently watching with concern, however. The history of the military, not only in Egypt but also in other Arab states, is not a pleasant one, and trends do not suggest that democracy will return to Egypt soon. The challenge will be to break this negativity, and continue the work that started with the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – to bring democracy and peace to a nation that, technically, has never seen the two side by side.
The Failure of the Freedom and Justice Party
From the beginning of his presidency, Mohamed Morsi set out aims to alter the Egyptian constitution, and therefore the dynamic of society, in favour of conservative Islamic principles. While this was not cause for military invention of course, the subsequent events that led on from such discourse pushed Egypt back into political turmoil, culminating in public movements of similar magnitude to the Arab Spring that pushed the Muslim Brotherhood into power in the first place. Towards the end of 2012, Morsi expanded his presidential power, transforming his position into something almost ‘pharaoh-like’. He was criticised for his lack of engagement with the electorate, despite having been democratically elected, and for failing to tackle major issues such as the faltering economy and distribution system whilst prioritising less pressing issues like prayer times.
Through comparison with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, one can discern that Morsi did nowhere near enough to stamp authority on Egypt. True, Ayatollah Khomeini’s movement was more extreme and intense, but it grew out of discontent with autocratic government – as did the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring. Khomeini knew, and the Islamic government in Iran still knows, how to maintain power – through conservative policy (although this is becoming more moderate) and stringent political tactics. An immediate declaration of war with a neighbouring state (Iraq, 1980-8) didn’t harm the Islamists’ cause either. It is quite clear that Morsi failed miserably to entrench his and his party’s principles on the majority. While there are indeed Morsi fans protesting against the deposition, they are heavily outnumbered not only in bodies, but also in passion and impact.
The Future of Egypt
The military, in the modern history of the Middle East, has a tendency to hold power longer than ‘intended’ – or at least, publically announced. The Free Officers’ Revolt in 1952 overthrew the British-backed King Farouk, to establish autocratic rule supported by the military. Gamal Abdul Nasser, later pushed by Arab nationalism into the position of ‘leader of the Arab world’, softened the lack of democracy and liberalism in Egypt by focusing energy on the dismissal of imperialist forces from the Middle East and war with Israel. The military subsequently held power through Anwar Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak until 2011.
Likewise in Iraq, 1958 saw the overthrow of the monarchy by the military, which proceeded to back up the one-party political system until the deposition of Sadaam Hussein in 2003. The difference in discourse surrounding yesterday’s ‘coup’, however, is that the Arab region is yet to see the overthrow of a democratically elected government. The military also has a great deal of support from the population, as is evident in the pictures coming out of Egyptian urban centres. It is difficult to predict exactly what values and systems will emerge from such events – the common Egyptian will hope for a return to democracy and the neutralisation of the problems that drove the people and the military to overthrow Morsi. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and American President Barack Obama have both expressed neutral support for Egypt as a nation, but offered no support for military coups and highlighted the importance of a swift return to democratic politics.
The reputation of the Egyptian military is not on their side. As George Orwell wrote:
“…[no one ever has] the courage to recognise their own motives. No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. The object of power is power…”
For now, Adly Mansour – head of the Supreme Constitutional Court – has been instated as interim President, the constitution has been suspended, and elections have been called for. It is the job of the military to ensure that (a) Orwell is proved wrong; (b) historical trends are not repeated (c) the people of Egypt are served by a democratic and competent government; and (d) this time next year the term ‘coup’ bears no relation to the events of Wednesday July 3rd 2013.