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Where the Nile Flows into the Rubicon

[Caption: [Caption: "Freedom". Protesters warming up for the 30 June anti-Morsi protests on 28 June 2013, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flicker by Lilian Wagdy]

Never in recent history have officials, commentators, and even political activists spent so much time parsing the meaning of a handful of words—notably, “coup”, “revolution”, and “democratic legitimacy.” The quality of magical thinking inherent in much of the discussion is striking. It is most striking when Western commentators—with clear and longstanding disdain for the now-deposed regime of Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood—make equally dismissive assertions that by deposing their president Egyptians had once again proved their lack of both ability and desire for democracy.

Many commentators reduced the millions of people that took to the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation to “mob rule.” It was not uncommon to hear commentators say that if equally large numbers later came out against his successor, then, an unfortunate precedent was set in which the Egyptian Armed Forces could again act. Better, therefore, the logic went, to wait. In the world of thought experiments performed by political philosophers, such logic is completely correct. It was equally true when Zakariya Abdel Aziz, former head of the Judges’ Club proposed it as a counterargument in his late January 2011 declaration that the masses of people in the street had effectively abrogated the constitution. The idea, however, that millions of people are easily roused to demonstrations and that—once so roused—they should be ignored seems incompatible with the notion of democracy. The question then is not so much should the Armed Forces have intervened, but how should President Morsi have responded?

Much recent foreign commentary presumes that sufficient chastisement of the Egyptian people will bring them to their senses and thus pursue policies that ensure the ultimate success of stable democratic development.  This approach has not worked well in the People’s Republics of Berkeley or Cambridge nor in the Duchy of the Beltway. It is unlikely, with one exception, to have the least impact on Egypt. The one exception, of course, is if the outrage moves from the pages of the daily press to whatever documents President Obama signs, wherein he names the recent events in Egypt a coup. That would ultimately deny military aid to the Egyptian Armed Forces, and perhaps delay or deny its request for economic aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This, however, is unlikely because Obama possesses a sharp sense of realism and is rapidly scaling back his policies to meet an opposition well beyond the halfway point.

Points of No Return and Changed Circumstances

Having moved for a second time to overthrow a head of state whose legitimacy was unquestioned internationally while domestically challenged, the Egyptian Armed Forces and General Sisi have taken a step from which there is no turning back.  Whatever else happened when the 2012 constitution was put into place, it established in theory that President Morsi was not only the head of state but also the supreme commander of the armed forces. The constitution tactfully avoided discussing who was in charge should the supreme commander (the president of the republic) and the commander in chief (the defense minister and a general) disagree. This lack of clarity is no longer the case. When Julius Caesar led the Thirteenth Legion across the Rubicon, he had committed a capital offence (as did the soldiers who obeyed him). In Republican Rome, only elected officials could command armies on Italian soil. Thereafter, only success mattered since there would be no other accounting.  Whether General Sisi’s agreement with President Morsi last fall was a tactical retreat or a real truce can, along with the discussions of coups and legitimacy, be left to future historians. Neither of Egypt’s two living and deposed presidents can be allowed to return to power if those who pulled them down have any hopes for their own futures.

The military coup that forced former President Mubarak out of office had widespread support. Anyone who opposed it, such as the feloul (remnants of the old regime), were too disorganized and politically weakened to return to power and exact retribution from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The coup that has forced President Morsi out of office may have the support of a significant portion—and perhaps even a majority—of the Egyptian population, but it has occurred in a very different political environment.  Opponents, which are centered around the Muslim Brotherhood, are far from disorganized—even if they are momentarily bereft of much of their top leadership. President Morsi’s supporters believe they were stripped of legitimate authority and have every right to regain it. The Muslim Brotherhood would be ill-advised to trust the Armed Forces in their present composition again, with either their president or their political order. These feelings of distrust have presumably been strengthened by the shooting deaths of more than fifty people in front of the Republican Guard headquarters.  The precise sequence of events on the morning of 8 July may elude us. They are certainly relevant should anyone bring criminal charges, and they will also be relevant more generally for human rights advocates who will correctly place responsibility on the government for its handling of demonstrations. But such precision will not be important to the competing narratives of the Egyptian revolution—which belong to different political camps—continue to develop. There are, in these developing narratives, no accidents and no bad decisions. There are only actors whose actions reflect their inner moral motivations. Here, I am not asking that we spare a tear for the Armed Forces, but only recognize what the generals themselves must recognize:  there is no way back; no way to compromise with ex-president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Certain dates mark irrevocable turning points:  25 February 1954, when Nasser ousted Naguib from the Revolutionary Command Council was one; 11 February 2011 was another; and 8 July 2013 marks still another. The Armed Forces are a powerful institutional presence in Egypt, as are the courts, and the Muslim Brothers.

Strategic Interests and Institutional Constraints: Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Armed Forces

Even if most Egyptians have never studied political science, they do understand that their choices are already limited by the available institutional options, as well as by agendas set by politically powerful, and frequently intransigent, actors. 

Both of Egypt’s two recent ex-presidents, faced with massive opposition in the streets, seem to have taken pride that they could be described as stubborn. Neither of them seems to have thought that the time to craft a new way to govern had come and gone until the generals were at the door to usher them out. In addition, the partisans of both continue to believe that, although their preferred president had indeed made mistakes, he did not deserve to be driven from office. He had, after all, performed adequately and students who do passable work do not, at the end of the day, deserve to be failed.  Parenthetically, I note that we hear similar complaints from the Obama Administration and its friends: US policy and US ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson have made mistakes. But it is not really their fault that the policy has proven to be both unworkable and so profoundly misunderstood by Egyptians as to have provoked their hostility. 

It is an open question whether it is possible, in the current circumstances, for anyone to think clearly about Egyptian politics as anything other than a morality play—one in which people are ultimately rewarded or punished for their intentions and their actions by God, the dialectic of history, or the principle of karma. There is also some question about whether Western scholars whose reputations were centered on claims about the essential political values of the objects of their research can now look clearly at events that have (at best) cast profound doubt on their conclusions. Just as an earlier generation of US academics—in particular—were convinced that the Egyptian Armed Forces were the agents of unfolding modernization, so too have their recent successors been certain that the Muslim Brotherhood, in a variety of national guises, would be the agents of democracy and the destroyers of authoritarianism.             

Now, there is no particular reason to believe that the Egyptian Armed Forces are the modernizers envisaged by US academics in the 1960s.  Nor is there reason to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the carrier of democratization through an Islamic state as envisaged in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Of course, the governments after 1952—which were invariably led by Army officers—pursued industrialization policies for strategic reasons. So, too, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership pursued open elections for their own strategic reasons.  Neither the Armed Forces nor the Muslim Brotherhood are or were particularly committed to the wider principles that academics like to read into these policy choices. 

While it may be that Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi shared some psychological features, it is equally likely that the structure of contemporary Egyptian politics makes it easy for office holders to indulge their refusal, if not to cooperate—at least to recognize the legitimacy as well as efficacy of their political constraints. Both men, faced with widespread and intense opposition, chose to resist rather than to respond. Military hierarchy shaped Mubarak, the last of three military officers to preside over republican Egypt. Over the decades, his political base narrowed and became increasingly fragile. The civilian hierarchy of the Muslim Brotherhood shaped Morsi’s adult political education. It took only months for his political base to narrow and forever widening opposition to shatter it. In each case, the armed forces stepped in to forestall the failure of the state in the face of mass mobilization.

There is no reason to believe that the underlying concerns and motivations of various institutions and their leaderships have changed in the past few years. However, they may have learned—as many Egyptians have—that the politics of revolutionary upheaval is an unforgiving environment. I have never believed that the army generals particularly want to rule Egypt on their own. What they do want is a political cohort that can provide stability and sufficient economic growth to allow the maintenance of stability. This is what the Muslim Brothers proved to be incapable of providing. Whether this was due to their incompetence or to powerful opposition was less relevant to the army than the simple fact of their failure and the unexpectedly massive opposition. Had the petition campaign demanding Morsi’s resignation indeed been as inconsequential as it appeared to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (and most observers) when it began, there is no particular reason to believe the Armed Forces would have made a move.

Polarized Narratives

Egyptian society is increasingly polarized. Egyptians tell very different stories about the revolution until this point, and they see the events of the last week in completely different ways. Such disagreements about the moral narrative of change are characteristic of revolution, and they persist for generations. In this sense, Egypt, as well as its armed forces, has crossed the Rubicon: it will be a very long time before the Egyptian revolution is an object of academic study rather than a source of emotionally resonant political allegiance. Much as I appreciate the call for dialogue between the competing camps, it will be a while before their discussions are anything other than the trading of irreconcilable and irascible monologues. Even today, there is no Rue Robespierre in Paris and no Kerensky Street in Moscow. 

Whether the two camps are equally large is less important now than that they can no longer agree on a common political project or political policies. The two camps are not defined by binaries of “secular and religious” nor “political Islam and moderates.” They might, more charitably, be called adherents of majoritarian revolution and revolutionary pluralism. The Muslim Brotherhood is now a cadre party dedicated to the conquest of power and the transformation of society in accord with their vision. Because similarly organized parties elsewhere and at other times were dedicated to socialist utopias, it is easy to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric of revolution as pretension or smokescreen.  But the current leaders have their own vision of a just society as well as of the mainsprings of political action. Their understanding of politics has allowed them to persevere and also, at crucial moments, to misunderstand what was happening around them. Their opponents—not united by much other than a distaste for the Muslim Brotherhood and (an important point) a desire to create political structures in which non-majoritarian parties can thrive—would prefer a plural political order. They have been, at least in the past few months, more realistically attuned to what is happening around them. Thus, both the Salafi al-Nour Party and the Social Democratic Party realistically understood how unpopular Morsi had become and that the Armed Forces were no longer willing to wait. They agree about very little (if anything) substantively, but they have both been willing to participate in a coalition to reconstitute a government and perhaps re-found the state. 

At this point in Egypt’s political and constitutional history, it may be that stubbornness is not an admirable quality in a president. This has less to do with the personal characteristics of those who offer themselves up for the office and more with the structures of power. Perhaps Egypt needs a president who is in reality (and not merely formally) independent of the ruling party. Only such a president can change the prime minister or call for new elections when millions of people take to the streets to protest its policies. Egypt clearly needs some mechanism to recognize protests of such magnitude and respond to them short of creating widespread social violence and a constitutional crisis. The 2012 constitution was written to resolve the problems of the Mubarak regime in which presidents could too easily dissolve parliament and subject governing parties to their will. The Muslim Brotherhood was determined to write a constitution in which a strong party could dominate both the presidency and the legislature. Unfortunately, it seems to have magnified the problems of the new order. And much of the confusion of outside commentators has come from their inability to see the difference.

[This article originally appeared on Nisr al-Nasr.]

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