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Egypt: A popular coup?

11 Jul 2013

Update 11/07/2013

Egypt has witnessed protests on an unprecedented scale amidst growing disillusionment with the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi. Over 22 million people, a quarter of the population, signed a petition named ?Tamarod' (meaning ?rebel') calling for President Morsi to step down, fresh elections and the suspension of the constitution.  This comes in addition to millions taking to the streets on Sunday 30 June to protest against President Morsi. The army issued a 48 hour ultimatum to the president in response to this popular show of force. When the demands were not met, the army removed President Morsi from power, instating the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as interim president.

International media have been quick to denounce the move as a military coup, expressing concern over the future of democracy in the country and region. However, these events can be considered a popular coup, with a clear roadmap already being laid out for a new constitution, as well as plans for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections. Violent clashes have erupted around the country since President Morsi's ousting, with many pro-Morsi supporters attacking Coptic churches and homes, resulting in several deaths.


With Egypt experiencing its second major transition in as many years, certain points of confusion have proliferated in media coverage.

Many Western observers have been quick to denounce what they term a coup, while David Cameron and President Obama can be commended for their careful statements, which stopped short of labelling it such. Both have called for a swift transition to a civilian government, but need to bear in mind that Egypt's democracy is not (yet) like those enjoyed by Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic.

The word coup is particularly unhelpful, characterizing the events in Egypt as an ideological battle between Islamist forces and the military. This fails to take into account the most significant player in the events that have unfolded in Egypt since 2011; the people. The popular will was expressed by over a quarter of the population signing what amounts to a vote of no confidence (the Tamarod, or ?rebel' petition), and the estimated 15 million descending on the streets of towns and cities across Egypt. A military coup is one where a small group of service men overthrow a government in order to maintain the governmental structure with power concentrated in its own hands. Whether this is the case in Egypt remains to be seen, but there is less reason to fear than some have assumed.

It is important to remember what drove Egyptians onto the streets. Mohammed Morsi emerged as president after winning a slender majority in an electoral process facilitated by the military and boycotted by the majority of eligible voters who deemed it illegitimate. Despite stating he would be president of all Egyptians, his regime became increasingly less inclusive, appearing to cement Muslim Brotherhood control of key sectors of the Egyptian polity and occasioning the coining of a new word: "Ikhwanisation" or "brotherhoodisation". 

In the most recent example of Ikhwanisation, on 16 June, Morsi appointed 17 new provincial governors, seven of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, further augmenting the party's already considerable power in the legislative and executive branches.  In addition, while opponents, atheists, Christians and Muslims espousing divergent views to the Brotherhood were harassed with law suits claiming they had defamed religion or insulted the president, private Islamist media houses were  able  to defame, insult and inflame sectarian divisions and tensions with few or no consequences. Morsi himself was not above defaming; his penultimate speech as president, which was seen as a rallying cry to his party as opposed to an attempt at reconciliation, featured a roll call of political opponents and their alleged crimes and faults.

While adept at amassing power, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed incapable of actually governing.  Under President Morsi, a political impasse developed, insecurity continued to increase, Egypt's economy slumped, unemployment rose dramatically, and social unrest ensued. The Tamarod demonstrations were therefore practical as well as ideological, with protesters voicing their frustration over shortages in water, electricity, and other basic amenities. Such a rule could not go on. What becomes clear from detailed analysis of the run-up to the 2012 Presidential elections is that not only did they appear to have come to some accommodation with the military (which was later rewarded by allowing the top brass a free pass regarding lives lost during their interim stewardship), but the Muslim Brotherhood were also by far the best organized party, as indeed they have been for decades. Eighty years of suppression under successive dictators had only strengthened their resolve to seize power, and to do so they had to branch out beyond their usual supporter base. This organization, coupled with funding from Qatar, enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to curry favour with an oft-forgotten section of the electorate, those in rural areas, mostly uneducated, voting not according to ideological or political allegiance but rather based on the offer of a better life. This constituency represents about 40% of the population, and added to a loyal group of ideological supporters, would go on to ensure the Presidential win. Since the elections, it has become increasingly clear that promises made were simply to gain power; the promise to appoint Christian vice-presidents proved to be another political ploy, another promise undelivered. 

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to force through a conservative interpretation of Islam through a rushed constitution drafted largely by Islamists that amongst other things, restricted the right to freedom of expression, and rendered women and religious minorities increasingly vulnerable.  This merely served to galvanise the opposition, with Muslims, Christians, atheists, liberals, and secularists standing together. By the end, the Brotherhood even alienated its allies; the Salafi movement refused to oppose Tamarod, while according to an unconfirmed report, the former terrorist group al Gamaa al Islamiya allegedly told its followers to stay peaceful.

The Army's seeming allegiance to the people was a key turning point in 2011, precipitating the fall of Mubarak and leading to the short rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Led by Mubarak appointees, SCAF's tenure was characterized by increasing repression, including forcible virginity tests on female protestors, the brutal suppression of demonstrations using teargas, brutal assaults and live ammunition, and most infamously, the murders of 24 unarmed protestors in what has been termed the Maspero Murders or Egypt's Bloody Sunday. Today the army is a key player once again, outlining a road map to democracy predicated on an inclusive government for all Egyptians. The old guard has been retired, and as if to emphasis this return to the values of the 2011 revolution, during the press conference announcing a suspension of the constitution and temporary transfer of presidential power to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the new Supreme Commander of the  Armed Forces General Sisi, (who also has the dubious past of having  attempted to defend indefensible forcible virginity tests), was surrounded by every social political and cultural sector of Egyptian society – including the youth, secularists and Salafis – except the Muslim Brotherhood.  The interim president was sworn in a day later, tasked with creating a government of national unity.



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