Mohamed Morsi Coup: The Army vs. the Government Is Just the Way Things Go in Egypt

The streets of Egypt have been filled by popular celebrations after the army removed President Mohamed Morsi from office on Wednesday. Yet, scenes of jubilation in iconic Tahrir Square are answered by scenes of despair and anger next to the Rabaa Al-Adaweya Mosque, the gathering location for the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi front. In reality, this military ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president raises more uncertainties about the country’s future stability than it helps advancing democracy and freedom in the short and medium term. By giving into the massive civil unrest, the military has set a precedent that future elected presidents may also be forcibly removed under the pressure of popular protests. Finally, the intervention of the military against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have disrupted a delicate power balance between the army and the ruling party. This may force the former to intervene in the country’s governance more often than it wants to.

Since Wednesday, confusion has surrounded the fate of Mohamed Morsi. After being detained by the armed forces on July 3, Morsi was transferred to the Ministry of Defense early Thursday morning. Some believe he might be kept in the premises of Egypt’s military intelligence. What is certain, however, is that hedoes not enjoy freedom of movement. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, many of its high-ranking officials were arrested, among them the Supreme Leader Mohamed Badie, his eminence grise Khaytar Al-Chater, and the head of the Freedom and Justice Party Saad Al-Katatni. The Brotherhood lost the Senate where it had an absolute majority, as the constitution has been suspended, and has also lost its communications arms on the radio and TV. It seems that the Brotherhood is going through an internal crisis as some of its younger members resent its leadership for having failed at capitalizing on its electoral legitimacy.

Loyal to its road map, the military nominated Adly Mansour as Egypt’s interim president. Mr. Mansour was recently nominated the Head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, one of the few institutions that the Muslim Brotherhood did not penetrate. Judge Mansour and the Constitutional Court were extremely critical of the Islamist leadership.

Given the role that Egypt’s military has played for decades, such aggressiveness against the Brotherhood is rather hard to understand, especially when taking into consideration the complex relationship between the Egyptian military and the government. The Egyptian army has been the pillar of the country since Colonel Nasser overthrew the monarchy in 1952, when the military was the only institution capable of conducting domestic affairs and carrying out large national projects or maintaining political stability. After the 1967 debacle of the Six Day War, the direct involvement of the army in the domestic political process started to decline.

Number of Egyptian military officers serving in the Cabinet, 1951-1981

Source: Mark N. Cooper “The Demilitarization of the Egyptian Cabinet” in International Journal of Middle East Studies (1982) pp. 203-225

In spite of important budget cuts under President Sadat, the army turned into a ruler from behind the scenes, becoming an essential actor in the country’s economy under Mubarak. The decline of its influence over the political process was offset by its modernization and the expansion of its influence over the economic realm, especially in military industries, agriculture, and national infrastructure. Still, Mubarak maintained a firm control over the political decisions. To paraphrase Steven A. Cook’s 2007 book title, the army ruled but did not govern.

The distribution of power between the army and the government could be viewed as a partnership between the two institutions. The military remains the ultimate guarantor of the country’s stability and the government its partner in managing domestic political matters. Therefore, the military never really needed to govern the country, as long as the government did its share in keeping the country stable and containing massive unrest. In this respect, Mubarak’s ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was considered by the military as a long-term and reliable partner that managed to maintain social order for decades. In the context of this relationship, the 2011 military ousting of Mubarak appears to be the termination of a long-lasting relationship with the NDP since it failed to address people’s demands and maintain social order. However, the ousting of Morsi, while a military coup motivated by the same reasons, is remarkably different from that of Mubarak.

First, it is debatable whether the removing of Morsi is a veritable military coup, as it has not been followed by military rule as Mubarak's ousting was in 2011. In passing, this is strong evidence that the Egyptian military is not keen on being in charge of running the affairs of the state, even in an interim government. It also shows that its chief concern is the country’s stability and it matters little if it is maintained by a single-party dictatorship, an Islamist coalition, or a secular multi-party system.

Second, the coup against Mubarak did not upset the partnership between the military and the government for long. The NDP was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a reliable partner with a very broad popular base and an electoral legitimacy. Today, this is no longer the case.

The army’s intervention against the Muslim Brotherhood brought more uncertainty than it helped the country’s democratization process. By removing a party with strong popular foundations, the military might not be able to replace it with another partner in the government. The Tamarod (“Rebel”) movement, after all, is not a political party but an umbrella group made of a wide range of opposition factions that united under the single objective of removing President Morsi. While the movement is mainly composed of seculars and liberals, it lacks internal cohesion and a leadership structure.

Besides, Tamarod's better-organized adversary had enough trouble of its own while governing. The Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived experience as a ruling party has showed how hard it is to transition from an opposition group to a governing body. The Brotherhood needs to make serious adjustments to democratic political competition. Yet, the movement is just under a century old and has survived much more severe setbacks, like the Nasser crackdown in 1954. Therefore, although it is a weakened adversary, it remains the most serious threat to the Tamarod movement. It is, indeed, not certain that the 30 June Front will become the political alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and the army’s partner in running Egypt.

It is highly doubtful that the Muslim Brotherhood will respond to the uprising with massive violence of its own. While its response to the coup remains uncertain, it is expected that the Brotherhood will engage in popular protest that may lead to violence. The same cannot be said about extremist Salafist movements, which may abandon the democratic game altogether to engage in violent action against the military and the secular opposition factions.

As for the Tamarod movement, its unity is not guaranteed, especially against the transitioning but more cohesive Muslim Brotherhood. Besides, the military has now created a precedent by giving in to civil unrest. Who's to say they couldn't do it again?