UK United Kingdom

Morsi’s authority ebbed away, but Egypt is dangerously divided

“Egypt is split” is how many Egyptians describe the current crisis rippling through the country. Before Wednesday night’s apparent military coup, journalists had reported on pro and anti-Morsi demonstrations…

The opposition claimed more than seven million Egyptians had signed a petition calling for the president to step down. Zeinab Mohamed/Flickr

“Egypt is split” is how many Egyptians describe the current crisis rippling through the country. Before Wednesday night’s apparent military coup, journalists had reported on pro and anti-Morsi demonstrations, the battle between liberal secularists and Islamists (symbolised by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood) and the fight between secularism and religion.

One rally was fired on by unidentified gunmen in a frightening indication that the popular protest against 12 months of Morsi’s government may descend into violence with unthinkable consequences for the Arab world’s largest democracy.

And yet, one Brotherhood official described the protests as a healthy sign of democracy. Morsi himself, in an interview with The Guardian before his removal from office, said that protests were legitimate in that: “There can be demonstrations and people expressing their opinions.”

It is a fact that, across the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring” has highlighted the relevance of the public sphere, an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems and through that discussion influence political action.

A divided country

The fault-lines in Egypt are not new; for decades, Egyptians have been divided into two public spheres that define both the political and the socio-religious domains: the secular-liberal public sphere and a public sphere largely dominated by Islamic thought.

So why did Egyptians protest en masse once again?

Morsi: out of options.

It is important to go back to 2011 and review the circumstances that gave rise to Egypt’s protest movement in the Arab Spring: revulsion at the corrupt and oppressive nature of the Mubarak regime, as well as a desire for decent living conditions and an effective and democratic constitution which gives Egyptians some control over their rulers. These factors built pressure and led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

When Morsi assumed office on June 30 last year he had a clear mandate from the people who elected him: real freedom of speech, justice, economic and social dignity, an end to police brutality and the state of emergency laws.

In the eyes of today’s protesters Morsi failed in these urgent tasks, particularly in dealing with an ailing economy and assuaging fears about the real intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also failed, in their eyes, to build consensus as he has only paid lip-service to opposing views. The Morsi Meter measures popular approval of Morsi’s performance at just 39%.

Democratic transitions are not straightforward processes and Egypt’s revolution is a major episode in the story of the continuing growth of civil resistance as a force in politics that autocratic regimes simply cannot ignore. In 2011, Mubarak was toppled in just 19 days. Two years on and the main difference is that Morsi was popularly elected. One of the main messages you hear from protesters Tahrir Square is that they voted for Morsi, but he hadn’t lived up to the promises he made to get him elected.

Morsi legitimacy was in question

What is clear is that there is a growing disconnect between what Morsi understands as “constitutional legitimacy” and what the people and the opposition considered to be the legitimacy of Morsi’s rule. Morsi himself admitted that it was a mistake to force through constitutional changes last November that gave him new powers and put him beyond the bounds of judicial supervision. This was read by protesters as a clearly dictatorial move.

But who wins? Zeinab Mohamed

As well as seizing new powers, Morsi was widely criticised for filling government posts with Islamists which has led to Egypt’s continuing polarisation. Morsi however, insisted that, as records show, opposition leaders were in fact been offered top jobs in government but repeatedly turned them down.

Thus the reality of Egyptian politics on the ground is that neither party accepts the other side’s legitimacy.

President running out of options

Morsi’s offer of a compromise, including the formation of a national government and constitutional change was ultimately rejected by the army.

Both the army and the Tamarod opposition movement had published their own “road maps”, each of which called for Morsi to go and an interim arrangement. The army’s plan called for an interim military leader, while Tamarod’s called for a new temporary president and prime minister and the election of a new body to draw up a fresh constitution within 30 days.

In the longer term, Egypt’s path towards democracy highlights the need to follow a successful campaign of civil resistance with an effective programme of governmental and societal change involving a wide range of partners. The big challenge will be to prevent a descent into violent chaos in the event of a stand-off between the army and Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood. This will require co-operation with the armed forces, but most importantly a sincere willingness by all three parties involved – the government, the opposition and the army – to accept compromise.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Iain Davidson


    We do coups so much more privately in Australia.

    1. susan walton

      logged in via email

      In reply to Iain Davidson

      Indeed. Just as lethal though somewhat bloodless in comparison, instead of coups, we call them polls.

      It would do current and future PM's to remember that, and to tread carefully, with the countries finances and people in mind as opposed to themselves.

      I'm trying to imagine if the army ever took sides in Australia!

    2. Mike Stasse

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to susan walton

      Australia, obviously, is very different to Egypt. Geographically and demographically. But there are striking similarities.....

      Both are running out of oil.
      Both are overpopulated (Egypt much more so)
      Both are mostly uninhabitable - deserts.
      Both have built over their best farmlands
      Both are highly indebted

      Now of course, we are not seeing food and fuel shortages here - yet. And rolling blackouts don't occur either because unlike Egypt we are blessed (is that the right word....?) with loads of coal.

      But make no mistake, if Rudd's "big Australia" takes off..... we're heading the same way.

    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      Maybe Egypt would be pretty good at manufacturing a pyramid like rotating/tilting conical solar power plant and they could even ask the Romans about slave driving to do the rotating and tilting, maybe even rolling then up gang planks onto slave powered galleys for shipping across the Med could be part of the deal too.

  2. Leigh Miranda

    Gym Owner

    Am I the only one that can see uncomfortable parallels with the 1953 overthrow of Mosaddegh, the popularly elected Prime Minister of Iran. In that case the US and Britain plotted his removal from within with the CIA , according to Wikileaks - 1953 Iranian Coup d'etat - "bribing street thugs, clergy, politicians and Iranian army officers to take part in a propaganda campaign against Mosaddegh and his government". This event can be credited with the radicalization and anti-west sentiment that boiled…

    Read more
    1. Nathan Grandel

      Exercise Physiologist

      In reply to Leigh Miranda

      I would have to agree with you on some of this, specifically your reference to Hamas in Gaza…… The Palestinians elected a terrorist organisation into power, an organisation with a mission to wipe out Israel ……. The people of Gaza are a true partner in peace.

    2. Mike Stasse

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Leigh Miranda

      There may be "uncomfortable parallels with the 1953 overthrow of Mosaddegh, the popularly elected Prime Minister of Iran", but there are also vast differences...... Iran was not on the cusp of collapse.

      The reason the people of Egypt are revolting is much more due to food and fuel shortages, crippling debts and rolling blackouts.... which you almost never hear about in the MSM....

      Since Egypt's oil production peaked in 1994, it's gone down to barely more than half those levels, while their…

      Read more
    3. Chris Saunders


      In reply to Mike Stasse

      The limits to growth that you mention must play a major role in opposition to an existing regime whatever its form, and largely explains why the protest movement gained such momentum in both Egypt and Syria. Although, the Syrian opposition appears to have been given a head start with the supply of personnel and arms from Saudi Arabia (if MSM is to be believed). At the same time, one must applaud a people’s protest at their democratically elected president assuming powers for himself to hold him above the law and deny the legitimacy of the courts. If the Egyptian people accepted the possibility of a new dictatorship taking shape and this time under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists, then all their efforts and hopes (again, as portrayed to us by the MSM) have been negated.

    4. Ian Rudd
      Ian Rudd is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired accountant & unapologetic dissident

      In reply to Leigh Miranda

      The US continues to provide $1.3 billion p.a. in military aid to Egypt. I have no doubt it is pulling many, but perhaps not all, the strings in Egypt. The US wants a compliant regime whether tyrannical or democratic - it doesn't matter.

      Morsi was largely compliant in spite of jailing (but subsequently freeing) many so-called US NGO workers. He continued restrictions at its border with Gaza and continued to provide Israel with cheap oil that it desperately needed for itself.

      It seems to me…

      Read more
    5. Ian Rudd
      Ian Rudd is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired accountant & unapologetic dissident

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      Absolutely, The Limits to Growth has arrived in spite of what the IPA might have you believe and I think you are right that it was in Egypt as well as it was in Tunisia and elsewhere including Europe a major factor that helped spark the uprisings. Other factors include Wikileaks, rising inequality, corruption and repressive/unresponsive regimes.

      The uprisings and particularly the responses thereto unfortunately have themselves created more instability, more violence and hence worsening economies - a vicious circle.

      In Tunisia, the last I heard, the regime was on the verge of accepting a large, as usual conditional, World Bank loan.

      Yet another country bites the dust.

      It is worth watching "The New Arab Debates" and before that The DOHA debates to get an added perspective of what the people in the region believe. Both series are conducted by Tim Sebastian

  3. Jared Goodwin

    Information Mercenary

    A lot of respect for the Egyptian Army and it's leaders, they appear to truly serve the people and not whom ever is in power. I believe they will keep their country from falling into violent chaos.

  4. Roger Crook

    Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

    Some years ago Christopher Hitchens wrote 'Egypt isn't a country with an army, it's an army with a country.'

  5. Sebastian Poeckes


    Just another example (as if it was needed) that religion and politics are a bad mix. This is doubly so with Islam which always had and still has a major political dimension.

  6. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " So why did Egyptians protest en masse once again? "
    As Mike points out in his comment, Egyptians through limited production and increasing population have been on a rapidly increasing trajectory to having to make do with less.
    Aside from the Islamic Brotherhood President desiring to be a dictator the brotherhood has been unable to alter the trajectory but to perhaps make it worse.
    During the Arab Spring, there was a marked fall off in tourism, a significant part of Egypt's economy and it likely did not fare much better post election with Islamic restrictions, the lack of flow through into the broader economy no doubt starting to be more widely felt.
    Meanwhile, as with any of the more have not countries modern media allows people to rapidly see what the haves have and so there is a convergence of frustration that has led to the current protesting.
    Somehow I'd not expect things to improve just as it is for any over populated region.

  7. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    "popular approval of Morsi’s performance at just 39%". In most western democracies that's a great score after a year in office
    "Morsi failed dealing with an ailing economy" No one can fix an economy in less than a year. Egyptians voters believed what they were told. Clearly they have not had time to understand that politicians lie constantly both to get elected and to stay elected.

    1. Ian Rudd
      Ian Rudd is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired accountant & unapologetic dissident

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      The problem with Morsi's lies were that they were far from little lies. The economics aside many people died or have been incarcerated or suffered other deprivations because of his policies.

      For those really interested in the Egyptian situation I strongly suggest you follow Democracy Now. Google it. You can watch or download recent broadcasts or archived material going back years.
      They have had coverage from people right there in the midst of it all.

      Incidentally I attended a rally last Saturday in Perth by Egyptians calling for Morsi's overthrow. The three I spoke to all claimed he was worse than Mubarak.

    2. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Ian Rudd

      It was predicted that Morsi would resort to authoritarianism by most educated Egyptians. How true it was.
      Hurray, Hurray another dictator down! The Military actually saved Egypt this time around. Good luck to all Egyptians.