“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?
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.
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.