The Army's Coup in Egypt: For the People or Against the People?

The Muslim Brotherhood's atrocious record in government has obscured the nature of the army's coup, directed against the Egyptian people and the revolutionary potential of their deep disaffection with the old regime. As for the remnants of that regime - these elites are playing a game in which instability is a vital ingredient.

The Muslim Brotherhood's atrocious record in government has obscured the nature of the army's coup, directed against the Egyptian people and the revolutionary potential of their deep disaffection with the old regime. As for the remnants of that regime - these elites are playing a game in which instability is a vital ingredient.

The Brotherhood: poor in opposition, terrible in government

In power, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was an unmitigated disaster. Mohammed Morsi was elected by the skin of his teeth, and only with the votes of a good slice revolutionary public opinion, who thought that however bad he might be, the prospect of his presidency couldn't be as full of foreboding as that of Shafiq.

But Morsi revealed himself to be colossally incompetent, increasingly authoritarian, and utterly unable to come up with a plan for the economy, for political reform, for new legislation on key areas like the media, unions or NGOs, let alone for the reform of corrupt state institutions like the security forces.

The only tactics the Brotherhood seemed to have in its arsenal were taken straight out of the Mubarak rulebook. The only strategy it seemed capable of conceiving in government was to occupy all the institutions of the state in order to prevent any other group from returning it to opposition. Its utter inability to approach anything like a plan to fulfil popular demands for social justice, at least, should not have been surprising, given how closely its economic policies - dominated by its 'pious bourgeoisie' of businessmen - resemble that of the old regime.

Morsi's not-so-creeping authoritarianism was in your face, and alienated virtually every political counterpart in Egypt. He handpicked a prosecutor-general in an attempt to neutralise the judiciary, rammed through a partisan (and poorly written) Constitution, played with the fire of sectarianism, and passed a constitutional decree conferring on himself powers so vast they probably made Mubarak blush. He marginalised or ignored any political voice not supporting the Brotherhood, and actively tried to neutralise any opposition, targeting political groups, the media, civil society, and independent trade unions.

In fairness, Morsi certainly faced enormous opposition from within the state apparatus, not just from the security sector - with which he thought he'd successfully struck a 'non-interference' pact - but also the judiciary and state bureaucracy. But the Brotherhood signally failed to build coalitions against such established centres of power, making it unlikely that the Brotherhood's strategies would have been much different without such opposition from former regime apparatchiks.

Democracy and popular will

This context is necessary to start grasping the depth and breadth of popular opposition to Morsi. This popular mobilisation cannot be dismissed by stigmatising it as being politically or socially partisan: opposition has come from a range of quarters, from secularists to Islamists, socialists to liberals - Morsi's political talent turns out to have been alienating opponents and potential allies. The Tamarrod (Rebel) campaign which claims to have gathered over 22 million signatures calling for Morsi to go was only the latest and most spectacular manifestation: even all the way back to his ultimately successful presidential campaign, Morsi's support was not assured even amongst his natural constituencies and in the Brotherhood's stronghold: in Alexandria, Morsi lost in the first round to both leftist nationalist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Abdul Moneim Aboul Futouh.

The crowds protesting against Morsi around the country were unprecedented, and even if they did not reach 40 million (50% of the population), they compared favourably to the masses that turned out during the 2011 January Uprising.

There must be no mistake that these demonstrations represented the most serious challenge conceivable to Morsi's presidency, to the Brotherhood's role as the country's largest political force. Nor can there be a question that in a democracy the purpose of formal processes is to convey popular will: appealing to such formalities to usurp or ignore that will is a challenge straight to the heart of democracy. Neither the Brotherhood nor the western governments that had begun to make their peace with it can shirk this.

When is a coup not a coup?

However, going against such formal procedures cannot be taken lightly, particularly when the Presidency was the office of state with the greatest claim to legitimacy, the lower house of parliament having been dissolved by the judiciary, and the upper house being elected on a paltry 8% turnout. Anti-Brotherhood protesters claimed that Tamarrod's groundswell of popular opinion was enough to delegitimise Morsi, and that therefore the army's removal was legitimate, and even democratic, in that it acted on behalf of the people. The army gladly echoed this rhetoric, emphasising Morsi's obvious unwillingness to compromise.

On the one hand, it is possible to make such a case. Legitimacy can derive from essentially two contrasting sources. One is formal, based on institutional and procedural legitimacy, the legitimacy of constituted power. The other derives from the clear manifestation of popular will, a manifestation of constitutive power - after all, institutional legitimacy depends ultimately on popular consent. Leaving aside the well-known and genuinely thorny problem whether one should take precedence over the other, and ignoring for a moment the size of pro-Brotherhood crowds, arguably popular demonstrations might provide the grounds to claim that while Morsi may have been legitimate in the first sense, he was not in the second, and that therefore the army had grounds to act legitimately in the name of popular will.

However, there is simply no evidence that the armed forces intervened somehow on behalf of "the people's" will, as opposed to merely attempting to legitimise its actions this way.

History cautions against claiming that the Egyptian upper echelons of the armed forces are willing to act in the popular interest or even to respect civilian oversight at all. On the contrary, the one thing the Egyptian armed forces' leadership have tried to do since Mubarak's removal has been to preserve their insulation from that popular will which civilian oversight enshrines.

This was precisely why protests against them in 2011/12 were so vehement: the Army's leadership at that time clearly had no plan save to ride out the storm of popular protest and attempt to secure its 'red lines', particularly legal immunity and control over its budget and financial empire. Its failure was only marginally less spectacular than Morsi's. Indeed, the very roadmap for transition the Brotherhood is (rightly) accused of failing to implement was the same that the Army itself failed to follow through on.

To avoid pre-empting history, one could claim that although the coup might have been undemocratic, its outcomes might yet be democratic, and that the sheer pressure of a new wave of massive protests will keep the army true. Experience would suggest scepticism, but the Egyptian people have surprised the world before, and for their sake and everyone else's, we must hope that they will do so again.

Who benefits from Egypt's deepening political polarisation?

This debate, while important, misses a crucial point which must be included in any analysis: it assumes that the army's leadership - and the rest of the Mubarak-era state apparatus - have an interest in restoring Egypt's stability. This is far from clear.

Egypt's political landscape is in tatters. The now-former president is detained incommunicado, Brotherhood leaders have been arrested on vague charges, as have journalists and political activists, and there is the serious risk that the army's actions and Tamarrod's support for them are finally proving to a generation of Islamists the hollowness of democracy.

But more important still is the army's role in the violence. The army intervened claiming it wished to prevent a descent into civil war, and yet violence has only escalated since its intervention. It not only failed to secure protests and prevent clashes between rival camps, but faces mounting evidence of actively stoking conflict, for example by firing upon pro-Morsi protesters or by allowing pro- and anti-Brotherhood demonstrators to clash. This apparently contradictory behaviour - the army first took over and then appeared to leave the streets, allowing clashes to take place - begs the question: what is the function of a (preventable) spiral in political violence in Egypt today? It is difficult to conclude that it benefits anyone other than the military and the regime of which it is still part.

Stirring up conflict as a tactic of political control is not new. Mubarak leveraged Coptic/Muslim tensions, and Morsi ratcheted those up, and stoked Sunni/Shia tensions. The question is what effect this tactic has. The effect has been to polarise Egyptian politics between supporters and opponents of the Brotherhood. In turn, this reduces the chances of forming a broad coalition amongst the old/new regime, pushing the pro-democratic opposition - which remains highly fractious, the Tamarrod campaign notwithstanding - away from the tentative embrace with the shakily-democratic Brotherhood or portions thereof, and straight into the waiting arms of the certainly-undemocratic felool.

And yet, what mobilised people during the 2011 uprising and since then, was not the call for the downfall of individual portions of the regime - Mubarak, the Police or the Army, or even corrupt business elites - but of the nizam, the entire system itself. Protesters were right to feel that Egypt had changed and protesters would not simply allow things to go back to the way they were under Mubarak.

In this sense, the unprecedented groundswell of popular support that the Tamarrod campaign has generated was in itself the most significant novelty facing the old/new regime, and there could be no higher goal for that regime than pre-empting its revolutionary potential. It is difficult to overemphasise just what a galvanising effect the Tamarrod campaign has had: until very recently, pro-democracy activists were thoroughly disheartened, but the unprecedented success of this campaign has given a new impetus to popular demands, taking the initiative away from efforts at top-down 'reform' and 'guided transition'.

From this point if view, the coup and the 'legitimacy debate' have become a trap and a distraction for the Egyptian people, in that their greatest effect has been to distract collective attention from issues of bread, freedom and social justice, engage in factional fighting, and make a cohesive front between genuinely democratic Islamist, leftist, nationalist and liberal forces far more arduous.

Ongoing low-level conflict serves this purpose well. The elites risk overplaying their hand, however, as the Egyptian population is increasingly mobilised, and certain portions of the old/new regime - such as the Army's middle ranks - might be less cohesive than expected.

Nonetheless, part of Egypt's elite is playing a dangerous game of chicken not just with the opposition or the Brotherhood, but with the country itself - a game they feel they have little chance of losing. But this calculus might yet be mistaken: given the precedents set since January 2011, one can only wonder what the outcome will be.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.