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The Coup in Egypt

- July 4, 2013

We welcome another guest post from Jeremy Pressman.


What happened in Egypt was a military coup. I understand why Egyptian and US officials are afraid of that word because a coup should mean a US aid cutoff (it won’t) and a coup sounds like a bad thing.  What should you do if you think an illiberal executive is trying to close off the possibility of genuine competition for power? Tricky.

But what happened clearly meets the definition of a coup.

That said, this is an unusual case because it was matched, really preceded by, a huge mass mobilization on the part of the Egyptian people. I am not sure what precedent we have for that (any ideas?), and I think those millions who mobilized have a right to think they drove the train and compelled the military to step in. In other words, the fact that it fits as a military coup does not preclude the perception from developing among the popular anti-Morsi movement – millions of people – that it was somehow different from your average military coup and the military’s role was secondary, a tool of the people.

In fact, I wonder if the military feared letting the crowds on their own bring down President Mohamed Morsi or boxing him in so he had to make major concessions. Because if the people could have mobilized and gotten the duly-elected President of Egypt to make major concessions, maybe — just maybe — they could start to box in the military and begin what would be a healthy transformation of Egypt’s civil-military relations. So, from the military’s perspective, perhaps better to jump into that Morsi-people dynamic and frame things as “the military was the decisive actor who brought about radical change.” (Well, radical change to preserve the status quo ante.)

Going forward, the crucial barometer is how the Muslim Brotherhood community, on the one hand, and the military and anti-Morsi factions, on the other hand, relate to each other. It is a major test of whether Egypt can create an inclusive, if heated, political arena. I’ll go so far as to say if that works out halfway okay, I am optimistic and if not, more serious political troubles lay ahead. (If you need a big dose of pessimism on Egypt, read this by Marc Lynch.) I agree with Ashraf Khalil: “Exactly how the Brotherhood will react to this maneuver now becomes the most crucial and immediate question facing Egypt.” And Nathan Brown offers some excellent possibilities for the lessons the Brotherhood might learn.

But it is not just what the Brotherhood does, it is also how the regime treats the Brotherhood. The relationship will be interactive and so what both sides do toward each other matters very much. My initial (slim) hope is that Egypt’s new government and the military will try to co-opt the Brotherhood and its supporters rather than silence or crush them.

That is easier said than done for two reasons. First, both sides are battling to define what just happened. The battle of the narratives, as Nugent and Jamal noted: “Military intervention in Egypt will be seen by supporters of the Morsi government as a coup, and by opponents as a restoration of political order.” For the government and military, it is tempting, probably too tempting, to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood so that it does not get a fair chance to define what happened. Egypt’s new government will have a much easier time defining the story of June 30 if the other side is not able to talk. Early reports indicate the regime has already blocked many MB news and information outlets.

Second, Morsi et al will say things and call for actions that are quite alarming to the government. As Shadi Hamid pointed out to me, can the military really take a hands-off approach with Morsi “if he’s going around calling on military officers to mutiny…”? Unlikely. It will be hard to ignore the guy(s) shouting fire in the crowded theater. As a result, arresting, scaring, and hurting Brotherhood leaders is an obvious option.

We traditionally, and rightfully, look at a coup as an event that undermines democracy. Is that traditional sentiment applicable here? In the coming months, we will learn whether this military intervention was any better conceived and thus effective at protecting minority rights, creating space for genuine and lasting political competition, and, more broadly, helping Egypt move forward.