Egypt's Uncertain Democracy

The military demonstrates its support for the anti-Morsi protests. Last Wednesday, as I watched revolution in Egypt unseat it’s first democratically elected president, I couldn’t help but acknowledge my growing measure of unease. Like millions of other Egyptians throughout the month of June, my anticipation had grown for the scheduled June 30 climax to the “Tamarod” movement against President Morsi. And like millions of Egyptians, I had previously expressed my dissatisfaction regarding the nature of Morsi’s rule since his election in 2012. I was hopeful that a massive movement would serve as the long-overdue signal to Morsi that his style of governance had to change, and that it had to change fast.

June 30 rolled around, and Egypt did not disappoint. A year of frustration made its way onto the streets, and Egyptians came out in droves. Three days later, amidst a groundswell of opposition, Morsi was all but abandoned by his cabinet, a number of ministries, the army, and a large swath of the electorate that had empowered him only a year prior.  By evening fall on July 3, the military had taken to the streets, and fireworks were bursting in Tahrir—matched only in strength by the joy of Tamarod activists across the country.

Millions of Egyptians in the streets made a statement, and Morsi’s failed policies finally expressed themselves in the form of an empowered citizenry and its accommodating military. Undoubtedly, scenes of the anti-Morsi movement brought back memories of the anti-Mubarak revolution. But as the military announced the overthrow of Morsi, the changes in Egypt lacked the same kind promise they once enjoyed in 2011. Watching these events unfold, I was pleased to see the protests come out in force (easily the largest in the country's history), and launch historic change in Egyptian politics. But as footage surfaced of tanks rolling down the streets, I couldn’t help but ask myself: was it the right kind of change?

At this point, the grievances against President Morsi and his tenure in office are well documented: an incompetence to address major national and economic issues, an elision of democratic governance, a failure to engage opposition leaders in a meaningful way, a penchant to empower Muslim Brotherhood allies at the expense of other political actors, and a concerning reliance upon legally questionable declarations and a a highly controversial Constitution. He was not the leader the Egyptian people needed in the post-Mubarak era, and he was not the scion of the Arab Spring within whom millions had place their hope, or for whom millions had voted.

But as a number of analysts around the world have argued, and as the millions of Islamists in Egypt are now protesting, Morsi was democratically elected, and it was by no means appropriate to coercively remove him from power. Democracy is about working with the man you elect no matter how unpopular he might be. It is about building a system of trust, and buttressing a system that empowers the ballot box and not the machine gun. The move by the army—supported by the hardening demands of activist leaders—was an illegal move that threatens to destabilize Egypt for the long-term. Already, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been arrested, and Islamists across the country have responded in numbers, which has since precipitated violence and risks plunging the country into protracted conflict.

So while sympathizers of Morsi’s removal allude to Morsi’s anti-democratic ways to help justify his “removal,” critics of Morsi’s deposal allude to the detrimental effects such a move will have upon the future of Egyptian democracy, hard-won by the 2011 revolution.  In other words, the major contention comes down between those who believe in the legitimacy of Morsi’s democratic election in June 2012, and those who protest the nature of his rule through June 2013. Morsi was democratically elected, but he was not a true democratic leader —at least not by most expectations. Which quality is more significant?

In further evaluating the situation, what if we step back for a moment, and hypothetically consider the nature of Morsi’s post-July 3 leadership? What if the situation had not escalated to such an extent, and the army had avoided pulling the trigger? Would Morsi have reached out to opposition forces, engaged in national reconciliation, and cured the ills of his rule and of Egypt? Or, would Morsi have perpetuated his controversial style of governance?

On July 1, the Egyptian army offered President Morsi an ultimatum of 48 hours to reconcile with protestors’ demands. Later that night, Morsi televised a rebuff to the ultimatum in a fiery, defiant speech. He harped upon his “legitimacy” (a word he mentioned 54 times throughout the address) and vowed to serve the remainder of his 4-year term. As the threat to his future rule was reaching its climax, he took a hardline stance, and declared, “If the price of protecting legitimacy is my blood, I’m willing to pay it.” He continued to blame the Mubarak regime for the protests and efforts to undermine him, and failed to offer a way forward. Even as his cabinet started to abandon him, he remained adamant in his final hours about his rule, and refused to consider any deals offered to him to preserve his position as President and avoid overt military action. As a last ditch effort before his ultimatum expired on July 3, Morsi offered “consensus coalition government to oversee the next parliamentary elections.” Yet as the clock struck midnight for Morsi, such an overture was too little too late, and hardly reflective of a President who was willing to engage in genuinely meaningful democratic reform.

What’s more, in the lead up to the June 30 protest explosion, reports have emerged that the army first approached Morsi about reconciliation with the opposition on June 23 in order to avoid any real confrontation. Despite alienating virtually every power base in Egypt save his own constituents, Morsi refused to take the looming protestors’ demands seriously, and continued to rely upon his “legitimacy” as the Egyptian president. On June 26, Morsi delivered a one-year anniversary speech in which he admitted “mistakes” on his part, but avoided offering any new reforms. He even called out opponents by name and raved about them disparagingly.

Morsi’s steadfastness can be admired. But such resolution is only destructive in the highly polarized political scene of a country that is still recovering from 30 years of one-man rule. Morsi’s removal was not the absolute endgame to the Tamarod movement. Rather, the Tamarod petition called for early presidential elections—not a military coup. Only after Morsi failed to engage the Rebel movement, and only after the military stepped onto center stage (rashly so, if I may add) did calls for Morsi’s removal come to a head. Previously though, he had been presented with opportunities to protect his “legitimacy” and even build upon it. Unfortunately, clouded by denial and delusion, he refused to recognize them as such. He preferred to die than negotiate.

Over the first year of his rule, too, national dialogue and reconciliation never became a priority for Morsi. That’s not to say we shouldn’t blame the opposition for failures to propose necessary reform. But Morsi remained blind to the growing discontent around Egypt, and repeatedly passed off challenges to his power as schemes of the “felool”—old regime forces—and international enemies. The polarization within Egypt increased, and with it came lawlessness, sectarian violence, and more economic hardship. In the debate between electoral legitimacy vs. democratic rule, Morsi made it clear that he was standing by the former and, for whatever reason, discarding the latter.

It is hard to look upon this situation and feel confident one way or another. In a June 27 article, Nathan Brown sums it up perfectly, stating, “The only people who have an accurate understanding of the current situation are those who are utterly confused.” Even now, the process of explaining the unique circumstances surrounding Morsi’s removal has required its own vocabulary, with additions like “recolution,” “democratic coup,” and “soft coup” derived to reconcile the undeniably revolutionary and democratic aspects of Morsi’s deposal by military coup.  Egypt still faces the same obstacles it did before Morsi’s deposal, and there is no guarantee that the next president will be any more endearing than the last.

To be fair, one year is certainly not enough time for any president to seriously address a nation’s problems. But as I struggled with the sincerity of Morsi’s overthrow, I resolved that the potential consequences of allowing Morsi to remain in power outweighed the challenges Egypt now faces in the post-“coup” period. Morsi offered no indication that he would have been willing to address Egypt’s political crisis—even as he stared down millions of protestors. After four years in office, Morsi would have defectively defined “successful” democracy in Egypt, and would have set a bad precedent going forward amidst polarization and political stagnancy. Over the past year, Egypt has been plunged into the depths, and Morsi offered no solutions to fundamentally obvious problems. What’s worse, he failed to even seriously acknowledge the legitimacy of those problems, and the voices of those who disagreed with him. Morsi might have been legitimately elected, but he was not the only legitimate Egyptian voice.

The decisions Morsi made in Egypt do not justify his removal. Rather, it was how he made those decisions, and what that meant for the future of Egypt. Morsi inspired no consensus, and remained immutable—even at the very end. So as I struggled to understand my reaction to the events of July 3, I realized that my unease regarding Morsi’s removal increasingly paled in comparison to a rivaling impression: my discomfort upon considering where Egypt might have ended up if it had been held hostage by its unyielding leader for three more years.