UK United Kingdom

The counter-revolution that Egypt had to have

In the lead up to the constitutional referendum in Egypt the protestors and armed forces are taking their familiar roles around Tahrir Square. The decree by President Mohamed Morsi over-ruling the powers of the courts to over-rule him set the stage for a new round of confrontation nearly two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s dynasty. And as the country faces a watershed in its attempts to move on from the old days, there is the question of whether it is becoming a case of back to the future.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of simplifying this as a dictator-in-waiting versus a nation of would-be democrats. As ever with the Middle East though, the reality is much more colourful. And at the heart of the dilemma is that half the country are quite happy for Morsi to take all the power he needs.

The Pharaoh’s Curse

The problem for the current President is the ghost of the old one. Or rather, Mubarak’s legion of undead warriors in the upper levels of the judiciary and executive. Still loyal to the ancien régime, it was firstly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and now the supreme court who steadfastly hampered any attempt at reforming the country.

For Morsi that has meant a battle of attrition in pushing through a new constitution and governance structure. When he finally shunted Field Marshall Tantawi aside in August, the courts took up the baton, concerned that their status would be eroded by the proposed reforms. Challenges to the legality of the assembly drawing up the draft constitution and the process itself bogged things down in a Cairene Catch-22 – any changes to reform the old system were illegal under the old system.

The confrontation came to a head in late November when Morsi effectively declared himself above the law; infallible and unimpeachable, his word and the status of the constituent assembly would be unchallengeable until the new constitution had been ratified. (This last detail of interim duration is often unreported here.) The judges promptly went on strike and the protests began.

At least amongst some of the population.

Tahrir Square returns to use as a protest venue Wikimedia

How the other half lives

It shouldn’t be forgotten that 51% of Egyptians did vote for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood ideology. They see him as a saviour, a champion boldly slaying the dragon of Mubarak’s secular cronyism. To them, Egypt is an Islamic state and they’re happy for the Brotherhood to make it so. Their support for the President goes largely uncovered in the West because it doesn’t fit the narrative of Facebook driven protests in Tahrir Square.

That narrative though is also popular with some of the other 49% of the Egyptian people, particularly the young urban middle class and the Copts. For them, a retreat from secularism is equivalent to a retreat from modernity and freedom. They worry that an Islamist-dominated government will trample the rights of those who don’t want to walk the same path and that they will have swapped a corrupt dictatorship for a religious one.

In this clash of reasoning, both sides are having a problem selling their fears to each other. In an evocative anecdote, the BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil describes an interchange between two Morsi supporters during a demonstration in the Muslim Brotherhood heartland in the impoverished outskirts of Cairo:

A woman wearing a black abaya (cloak) walked over to a man waving the Muslim Brotherhood’s green flag. “Just hold the Egyptian one,” she told him.

“We want to tell them that Morsi is Egypt’s president not just the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Please understand how important this is. This is politics!” she urged him.

It’s the economy, stupid

Power and constitutional clauses aside, ruling such a divided and economically challenged nation is going to be difficult for whoever is in charge. Another inconvenient truth is that the germination of the Arab Spring protests, especially in Egypt, was more about economic stagnation than a whimsical aspiration for a change in political ideology. Egypt has tens of millions of people eking out an existence on pitiful incomes bolstered by government subsidies on staple commodities. Another chunk of the population relies on the tourist industry, a revenue stream that has dried up in nearly two years of unrest. Meanwhile the most important pyramid in Egypt is the demographic one, with an army of young people knowing they have little hope of obtaining meaningful employment.

The possibility of fixing such a broken economy is nil. In the short to medium term, it is America who will be writing the cheques, just as they did for his predecessor. That of course means that the Egyptian people will be affected by Morsi’s stance on things like support for Hamas and his ability to get on with Israel. It would be nice to think that a track record on human rights and personal liberty would come into it, but it didn’t for Mubarak.

You want how much!? US Dept of State

With such division in the country and the understandable desire to have the problems fixed yesterday, the events of the last few weeks are the counter-revolution that Egypt had to have. The country has never really had any experience with democracy in its entire history. As with any complex task, be it riding a bicycle or installing a pluralist democracy, it is to be expected that someone won’t get it right first time.

This will be the first of many falls. The challenge for the West is deciding how much they feel compelled to step in and hold the back of the bike.

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. Sarah Joseph

    Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

    Thanks for this. When you say 51% voted for Morsil, wasn't that in the second run-off election? I thought he only got about a quarter in the first election.

    And while many might want Egypt to be an Islamic State, there is an issue of imposing that on others. Whereas no one is telling them they can't worship Islam.

    And final point is that this referendum has been called with 2 weeks' notice. Hard not to be cynical about that.

    Though, of course, recognise that emerging into a new democracy is and was never going to be easy or without major hiccups.

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Yes he only got a shade under 25% in the first round, though that was the most of any candidate. It's a two-round system, designed I guess to provide some attempt at overall solidarity rather than a president with only a fraction of the popular vote. More people voted in that second round.

      Recall though that there were a lot of legal shenanigans in the lead up to that vote on the validity of some candidates from both sides.

    2. Sarah Joseph

      Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      I think top 3 candidates were v close - Brotherhood, establishment Mubarak-type, and then the liberal. A few more votes and the liberal would have been in the runoff. Ah well

  2. Peter Ormonde


    Excellent summary/overview Mat.

    Over the last 60 years Egypt has consolidated into a military state and the armed forces have had a long time to shape and determine the political structures... the courts, the economy, the public sector, all are in effect creatures of the armed forces, loyal and entrenched.

    This will take a while to undo - to establish new political structures - notably political parties that are able to reflect the diversity of opinion and interests, particularly for the…

    Read more
  3. Baz M

    Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

    Great article Matt. Touches on the issues which in face value are hardly spoken about.
    Although I can somewhat understand the initial euphoria the brotherhood and Morsi must have felt assuming that the people wanted a somewhight light version of Iran due to the people voting for them, I think this was a way too simplistic approach, and they have been proven to have been too carried away with the initial euphoria as the backlash indicates.
    What we must keep in mind is that the…

    Read more