While Syria remains in the throes of the uprising that began in March 2011 – the latest in a series of upheavals that first sprang up in Tunisia and followed in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt and was optimistically called the “Arab Spring”- Egypt has managed to find time for two revolutions, or, as it appears now, depending on who you ask, one revolution and one military coup.
Since January 2011, Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become part parliament and part presidents’ guillotine. After Hosni Mubarak took his fall, it was Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi’s turn.
It took 25 days to remove Mubarak from power in 2011. This time, the mob needed little more than three days to take down Morsi, the elected president. According to the Egyptian army’s political roadmap, Morsi’s successor will be chosen in a democratic election. That person should know the last thing he needs is a crowded, angry Tahrir Square to inevitably show him the door. The winds of revolution continue to blow in Egypt, and those winds will likely claim more victims. Whoever is next in line should take heed.
Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in 1928, it has aspired to lead Egypt by imposing its brand of Sunni Islam. It took the Brotherhood 85 years to reach its goal. But exactly one year later, Egypt removed Morsi, with the army’s generous cooperation. It was a huge blow for the Brotherhood and its goal of establishing theocratic states across the Arab world.
Egypt’s first free elections in history failed; this is what happens when they are held too early in the democratization process. But in Washington, American officials were thrilled about the “early results” in Egypt. They pressured Cairo to hold elections and even congratulated Morsi on his victory.
In the West, officials looked the other way when the Muslim Brotherhood essentially co-opted a revolution that was launched by young, liberal, secular Egyptians. It was most important for them to put a check by the word “elections” on their shopping list. Washington was oblivious to the goings-on in Egypt, and it was caught off-guard days before the start of the large-scale demonstrations that led to Morsi’s eventual ouster.
Whoever was in Egypt saw firsthand the speed at which the situation deteriorated. Defense Minister Col. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi revealed that the military had recommended to President Morsi in November that he include various political streams in the day-to-day dialogue, but Morsi preferred to maintain his grip on the wheel.
While the Muslim Brotherhood was fascinated with democracy, it forgot that Egypt was a big country, with a population of 84 million. Still, the Brotherhood received just 14 million votes. It didn’t see all the millions who didn’t vote for Morsi. In addition, the removal of the Supreme Military Council, which had ruled Egypt alongside the Muslim Brotherhood, was done in an insultingly hasty and haphazard manner. The army brass didn’t forget this insult, and was waiting for the moment to exact revenge.
Remarkably, officials in Washington were blind to what was taking place on Egypt’s streets. In April, a young, energetic group of oppositionists began to coalesce under the banner of Tammarud (“rebellion”). They circulated petitions and funded their own billboard ads and notices. They even set a deadline date of June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s swearing-in as president. They were determined to ensure a very unhappy birthday for Morsi’s presidency.
Eventually, the Tammarud movement said, it managed to gather 22 million signatures. More than 11 million people not only attached their signatures, but went out to the streets to demonstrate. Their success was stunning, even unprecedented. Cairo had never seen anything like it.
The United States never saw it coming. Just days before the protest, the U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, called on the Egyptian opposition to respect the election results, saying that she didn’t “believe that street demonstrations could bring about better results than the elections.”
It took the sight of millions in the streets for Washington to alter its tone. In a July 2 telephone conversation between Morsi and President Barack Obama, Obama said democracy “is not just about elections” but also about “ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard.”
For the demonstrators, this was too little, too late. Protesters in Tahrir Square carried signs condemning the American government. One sign even accused Washington of backing a fascist regime. Another sign read “Obama supports terrorism” in large type. By terrorism, protesters meant the Muslim Brotherhood.
Americans were so enthralled by the new democracy taking shape in the land of the Nile that they were willing to turn a blind eye toward the Egyptian plagues. The Muslim Brotherhood, after hopping on the bandwagon of the Tahrir Square protests last year, had a golden opportunity to take its seat and play the political game.
For the first time since 1954, the Brotherhood’s political activities were legalized, and the supreme constitutional court in Egypt deemed that it could field candidates for the presidency and parliament. Mubarak was horrified from his jail cell. Anwar Sadat spun in his grave. They knew the true identity of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they had limited their activities. But the events in Tahrir Square felt euphoric. For the sake of democracy, the Ikhwan (“Brotherhood” in Arabic) and the Salafists would be permitted to enter politics.
The problem was that even under the rule of the military, which was affectionately being referred to as “the people’s army,” Egypt failed to garner any significant achievements.
With army officers at the helm, Egypt descended into political chaos. Its socioeconomic crisis only worsened. This time, the masses demanded the head of defense chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Then, it was the Muslim Brotherhood’s turn to seize the moment. In three rounds of parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority. In the race for the presidency, its candidate, Morsi, a dull, nondescript man who wasn’t even his party’s first choice, prevailed over his main liberal opponent, Ahmed Shafiq.
Morsi made every mistake in the book. His first error was bringing a hasty end to the joint power structure he had shared with the military. This strange coalition consisted of the army ruling side-by-side with the Muslim Brotherhood, the same Brotherhood that was persecuted by the military under the Mubarak regime.
Morsi dismissed Tantawi and installed al-Sissi, a man who reportedly was sympathetic to the Brotherhood. It was obvious that Morsi cast an envious gaze toward Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to subdue protests against him by bringing his military’s high command to heel. Morsi soon would learn that what worked in Turkey – a country that is also in the midst of large-scale demonstrations with no clear end in sight – wouldn’t necessarily work in Egypt.
Shortly afterward, Morsi made a second, fatal error. After the court gave the order to dissolve parliament, Morsi fired the state prosecutor and assumed judicial powers. If there is one thing that Egyptians respect as much as religion, it is the judiciary. Morsi didn’t grasp the extent of that respect.
Beyond the question of who Egypt’s next president will be, we are left to wonder about the role of Egypt’s military in the two revolutions we just witnessed, which unfolded in very similar ways. In 2011, as now, the alliance formed between the army and the masses led to the overthrow of a leader.
Once the military issued its ultimatum for Morsi to resign, the die was cast. When the military ultimatum expired July 3, demonstrators in Tahrir Square celebrated as if they were certain that al-Sissi would announce the president’s dismissal. The images reminded us of what we saw in Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011, when the army did all the work as the police disintegrated.
Ultimately, the second revolution in Egypt left a sense that the army wanted to re-enact the events of the first revolution, only this time it wanted an outcome that was more to its liking. An alliance between the military and the secular public seems a much more natural fit than that which we saw in Egypt’s last revolution.
Many world capitals, not pleased with the bearded Islamist president in power, expressed joy at the events leading to Morsi’s ouster. Interestingly, an unusual disagreement emerged between Iran, which was horrified to watch a mob depose political Islam from the throne, and Damascus, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was happy to see that the failure of political Islam in Egypt meant his chances of remaining in power grew.
Meanwhile, in Ankara, Erdogan congratulated himself on his wise decision to install his close associates in the secular and westernized Turkish army’s high command. It was only a month ago that Turkish protesters shouted, “Taksim Square in Istanbul is Tahrir!”
But is Erdogan wrong? Did the success of Westernized and secular Egyptians in bringing about Morsi’s ouster actually encourage the westernized and secular Turks? Are we at the end of the line for revolutions in the region? Or is this just the beginning? Nobody knows for sure.