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What Led to Morsi's Fall—and What Comes Next?

That a popular revolt facilitated Morsi’s ouster is undeniable. But it has also solidified the military’s role as the final arbiter of power in Egypt.

Photo: David Degner/ Wall Street JournalJust over one year ago, on June 29, Mohammed Morsi chose Tahrir Square to deliver his first address as president-elect of Egypt.

“There is no power above people power,” he declared. “Today you are the source of this power. You give this power to whomever you want and you withhold it from whomever you want.” But twelve months later, Morsi would be unable to set foot in Tahrir, his words coming back to haunt him as millions took to the streets calling for his ouster in the largest protest in Egypt’s history.

The mass mobilization on June 30 eclipsed even the 2011 demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak; a few days later, on July 3, the army forced Morsi out of office, in what amounted to a military coup. His year-long tenure ended with a televised address by the head of SCAF, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, himself appointed by Morsi less than a year earlier.

Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir, jubilant at the news. The incessant drone of vuvuzelas mixed with a cacophony of drums, whistles and cheering, as the sky lit up with fireworks and green lasers. “Morsi’s gone and we are finally taking a step forward,” said a man named Shady, 38, who lives across the city but came to join the celebrations. “I don’t see this as a military coup,” he added. “The army is not trying to take control. The people are the source of all legitimacy and they took the power away from the president.”

That a popular revolt facilitated Morsi’s ouster is undeniable. But it has also solidified the military’s role as the final arbiter of power in Egypt. Following the June 30 protests, SCAF leaders gave Morsi a forty-eight-hour window to resolve the mounting political crisis. It came and went; as rival protests escalated and clashes broke out across the country, the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood were burned and looted and at least forty-eight people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

On the night of July 2, Morsi delivered a defiant speech that would be his final address as president. He warned that the country may descend into an endless spiral of violence if his “legitimate” right to rule as elected president was challenged. He repeated the word “legitimacy” dozens of times, at one point going so far as to say that he was willing to die if his claim to power was not honored.

The next day, the army deployed troops and armor at key locations across the country, tightening its grip on major thoroughfares and surrounding two large rallies that had formed in support of Morsi. Just after 9 pm, Sissi delivered his highly anticipated statement. “The Egyptian Armed Forces, over the past months since November 2012, have spared no effort directly and indirectly to contain the domestic situation and conduct national reconciliation among all political powers, including the presidency,” he said. He announced that a call for national dialogue had been “positively responded to by all national political powers but declined in the last minute by the presidency.”

Sissi , who never mentioned Morsi by name, declared that the chief of Egypt’s constitutional court would assume the presidency on an interim basis. A cabinet of technocrats would be formed to manage the country’s day-to-day affairs, he said, until new elections are scheduled. The country’s new constitution was suspended. In effect, Egypt had gone back to square one. Sissi’s eight-minute address erased two and a half years of a turbulent transition, marked by half a dozen cycles of elections and referenda.

Tens of thousands of Morsi’s supporters who had gathered at a the Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque in the Nasr City neighborhood, erupted in anger at the announcement, with chants of “Down with military rule” filling the air. Surrounded on several sides by soldiers and military vehicles, the crowd showed a mixture of shock, dejection and outrage. Many sat on the ground in silence, others wept openly. Closer to main stage, the frustration was more palpable. A speaker blasted the military and vowed to extend the sit-in “from six days to six years” to reclaim the president’s legitimacy. Many left the square in angry silence, only to be confronted with scenes of jubilation by those celebrating Morsi’s ouster in the streets.

“I am very depressed, but I am confident it won’t end like this,” said Mosaab Atteya, a 28-year-old engineer who had spent several days camped out in a tent to support Morsi. “I didn’t wait hours to vote in elections for it all to come to nothing, for those who cried over Mubarak’s ouster to remove our legitimately elected president.” As he spoke, a helicopter passing overhead was greeted with sneers of derision from the crowd. “There was this myth that Morsi ended military rule, but we are still living under military rule. I am ready for anything to return what we’ve lost.”

* * *

Since the beginning of the revolution, Egyptians have repeatedly taken to the streets to demand change. With every mass mobilization, political elites have jockeyed for power, seeking to ride waves of popular anger in an effort to maneuver themselves into positions of authority. The result has been successive regimes—from Mubarak to the SCAF to the Brotherhood—whose leaders have engaged in power-sharing deals that preserve the status quo and leave the structure of the authoritarian state intact.

In the street, initial optimism gives way to disillusionment and eventually mass mobilization as revolutionary demands for political and economic agency are ignored.

The Brotherhood’s rise and fall is a case in point. Morsi’s election last year with a slim 51 percent majority was celebrated in Tahrir as a victory over a return to Mubarak’s regime, embodied in rival candidate Ahmed Shafik, a retired Air Force general. Yet, within twelve months, millions of Egyptians lost faith in Morsi’s ability to lead the country and the role the Muslim Brotherhood played at the helm of power.

The Brotherhood faced serious obstacles to governing the country from the beginning. These included an intransigent state bureaucracy, a politicized judiciary and a media landscape full of former regime sympathizers who helped whip up anti-Morsi sentiment through shrill, and often erroneous, coverage.

The economy has been in a steady downward spiral, with inflation and unemployment on the rise. The Morsi government offered no clear plan for recovery other than a reliance on sporadic injections of cash from regional allies, Qatar chief among them. What’s more, the Brotherhood kept intact most institutions of the Mubarak regime, including the notorious security apparatus, which continued to torture and kill protesters with the same impunity it always enjoyed.

The Morsi administration and the Brotherhood governed in a unilateral fashion, employing a winner-take-all majoritarian view of their electoral gains that alienated parties from across the political spectrum—including erstwhile allies in the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party—and prevented them from building trust among Egyptians outside of their traditional constituency. They opted not to engage in any meaningful consultations on state policy between the government and NGOs, civil society, activists and other stakeholders.

All the while, the Brotherhood practiced varying degrees of identity politics for political goals, relying on divisive religious rhetoric against the Coptic minority and even sectarian incitement against Shia Muslims.

Egypt’s political fabric first began to come apart at the seams following Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional declaration that granted him far-reaching powers and placed his decisions above judicial reach. This sparked the first mass protests against his rule, leading to clashes between his opponents and supporters. The Brotherhood then rammed through a constitution drafted by an assembly that had seen a walkout of all of its non-Islamist members, a move that polarized the political arena beyond repair. The Brotherhood’s reluctance to engage in any kind inclusive or consensual process left it politically isolated when dissenters began to coalesce against it.

Morsi’s overthrow was precipitated by a campaign launched on May 1, Labor Day, by a group of young activists who called their grassroots movement “Tamarod,” Arabic for “rebel.” They set about collecting signatures on a petition that demanded Morsi step down and which called for a mass protest on June 30 to mark the first anniversary of his inauguration. The simplicity of the idea struck a nerve: organizers quickly gained millions of signatures.

The unprecedented turnout on June 30 reflected how deeply unpopular Morsi and the Brotherhood had become throughout virtually all segments of Egyptian society. It also spoke to the rejection of the political class as a whole, with a non-Islamist opposition that had often acted in a crass and opportunistic way over the course of the transition. Lacking any meaningful political channels to express their grievances, millions took to the street to call for change.

“[Morsi] failed to honor every one of the promises he made in order to be elected,” said Ahdaf Soueif, a well-known novelist and commentator. “He basically behaved as though he had somehow legitimately inherited the old Mubarak regime with a veneer of piety.”

* * *

The Egyptian military has been the backbone of autocracy in Egypt for six decades, and it’s history with the Brotherhood bears remembering. It was former president Gamal Abdel Nasser who first banned the Brotherhood in 1954 and jailed and killed many of its leaders, driving the movement underground.

Yet the two sides were on relatively comfortable terms following the 2011 revolution, after forming a political pact that allowed generals to return to their comfortable economic and political autonomy after they finished managing the post-Mubarak transition.

Soon after his inauguration, Morsi was applauded by many for retiring the two most powerful members of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and army Chief of Staff Sami Annan. Yet he provided the generals with a safe exit, opting not to hold them accountable for crimes committed during the transition. In April 2013, leaks from a report—compiled by a commission formed by Morsi himself—appeared in the press, implicating the army in the killing, torture and disappearance of protesters. Rather than call for accountability, Morsi showered senior military leaders with promotions.

When an uprising against military rule in November 2011 brought the country to a standstill, the Brotherhood opted not to take part, instead focussing on winning seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, the constitution backed by the Brotherhood and its allies enshrined the military’s long-standing political and economic privileges in Egypt’s national charter. It provided no parliamentary oversight of the military budget and allowed the army to control its own affairs, with a stipulation that the minister of defense must come from the ranks of the armed forces, have a dominant say in national security decisions and have the power to prosecute civilians in military courts.

In securing the military’s fiefdom, the Brotherhood was left to its own devices to manage civilian politics. Yet the generals needed political stability in order to enjoy their economic empire and the June 30 uprising threatened a complete state collapse, prompting them to intercede to protect their core interests.

The army was warmly embraced by many anti-Morsi protesters who openly called for them to step in and resolve the crisis. Crowds cheered wildly as helicopters flew overhead. The military did plenty to woo the masses, dropping flags on protesters and releasing footage of the anti-Morsi demonstrations on June 30 to sympathetic television stations, which aired them repeatedly, accompanied by nationalist music. The mutual flirtation peaked the day after Morsi’s ouster with air force jets drawing a heart in the sky over Tahrir.

But not everyone was enamored with the army’s return as a savior. Critics recalled its violent crushing of protests and the hauling of 12,000 civilians before military courts, warning that the SCAF’s mismanagement of the post-Mubarak transition helped precipitate the current crisis. Yet much like the early months following Mubarak’s ouster, dissident voices were largely drowned out in the euphoria over the removal of Morsi from office.

With few voices in opposition, the military may try to expand its powers and guarantee itself a role as custodian of the constitutional order, a move that would severely set back the drive for revolutionary change.

* * *

Today, elements of Egypt’s former regime are reasserting themselves, initiating a crackdown on the Brotherhood led by the country’s sprawling security apparatus that recalled the long years of oppression the Brotherhood suffered under successive autocratic regimes.

Morsi has been held incommunicado in an undisclosed location since July 3. Within twenty-four hours of the military’s intervention, security officials had arrested top Brotherhood figures, including the group’s former General Guide, 84-year-old Mehdi Akef, as well as the head of the Brotherhood’ Freedom and Justice Party, Saad el-Katatni. Prosecutors have also issued arrest warrants for more than 200 Brotherhood members, including Khairet el-Shater, widely considered the most powerful figure in the movement. Authorities also shut down the Brotherhood’s television channel, Misr25, its newspaper and three pro-Morsi Islamist TV stations.

“This is an act of revenge,” a senior Brotherhood member said. “They are breaking into houses and arresting us. We are back in Mubarak’s time.”

Meanwhile, Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who previously enjoyed a low profile, has been sworn in as interim president. In his inaugural speech he declared that the anti-Morsi protests had “corrected the path of the glorious revolution,” while praising the army, police, media and judiciary for standing up to the Brotherhood.

Asked if the Brotherhood would be included in a coalition government, Mansour said, “Nobody will be excluded, and if they respond to the invitation, they will be welcomed.”

But the Brotherhood has said it will not work with the new leadership. “We declare our complete rejection of the military coup staged against the elected president and the will of the nation,” the Brotherhood said in a statement. “We refuse to participate in any activities with the usurping authorities,” the statement said, urging Morsi supporters to remain peaceful.

With the largest political group in Egypt thrust outside of the political scene, and fears of a violent backlash from more militant Islamist groups, many fear a return to an entrenched authoritarianism. “They’re clamping down on Islamists, and once they are firmly in power they will go after anyone else who speaks out,” said the leading Brotherhood member. “They took advantage of the people’s opposition to Morsi to return Mubarak’s regime.”

If recent history is any indication, continued authoritarianism in Egypt will only be met with more mass mobilizations and revolutionary calls for change.