Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demand seemingly irreconcilable futures for Egypt: the return of President Mohamed Morsi or the continuation of the army-led ousting of Morsi’s administration. As they protest, the most populous country in the Middle East faces its worst crisis of legitimacy since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Supporters of Morsi, whose street presence has grown since he was overthrown by the military on July 3, have remained encamped in Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adaweya square for nearly a month. They demand his full reinstatement and the reversal of what they call a “coup,” even as a civilian government formed under the auspices of the military begins the process of drafting a new constitution.
But pro-Morsi forces face seemingly impossible odds: a sizable, nationwide constituency of opponents who staged what looked to be the largest demonstration in Egypt’s modern history on June 30 and who support the military’s increasingly threatening position against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. These opponents demand the generals press forward with their reset of the nearly 60-month-long transition, and appear to have the support of much of the state bureaucracy and private media.
In recent weeks, the stakes have risen. In the predawn hours of July 8, riot police and military troops opened fire on a pro-Morsi sit-in outside of the capital’s Republican Guards Club, killing at least 51 people and turning the prospect of serious bloodshed into a reality. Morsi’s supporters feared it would escalate against them, but his opponents said the threat was the 85-year-old Brotherhood itself. Private television channels, taking their cue from the military, expressed fear of impending “terrorism” and “extremism,” unsubtle nods toward the Brotherhood’s decades-old history of political violence.
When Gen. Abdelfattah el-Sisi - the defense minister who pushed Morsi out less than a year after the president elevated him to his position - made a televised speech on Wednesday calling for Egyptians to give the military a “mandate” to confront “terrorism” by staging mass demonstrations, the Brotherhood slammed it as a call to “civil war.”
“What’s probably the most surprising is that we haven’t seen any wide-scale violence that many people were expecting,” Tarek Radwan, the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, told Al Jazeera on Friday, as both sides massed in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities.
Analysts say Egypt’s crisis traces back to 2011, when the Brotherhood formed the Freedom and Justice Party and began contesting elections. At the time, numerous political actors were negotiating with the military and opponents of the Brotherhood argue that leaders of the Islamist movement made a tacit partnership with the military to make sure the post-Mubarak political roadmap would favor them.
The Brotherhood and its allies rallied supporters with religious rhetoric to approve a hasty, military-drafted temporary constitution that set elections on a swift timeline and put responsibility for drafting a new, permanent constitution in the hands of whomever won. Predictably, the Freedom and Justice Party outperformed its scrambling competitors, the Brotherhood’s hard-line Salafi allies came in second, and liberal, leftist and other secular parties found themselves sidelined.
Brotherhood leaders told opponents they would proceed cautiously and govern by consensus, but they reneged on many of their most important pledges, most crucially their promise not to seek the presidency.
The Brotherhood entered 2012 after winning a plurality of parliament’s lower house, the People’s Assembly, and dominating the upper house, the Shoura Council. They nominated longtime financier and charismatic deputy chief Khairat el-Shater for president, and when he was disqualified due to a politicized, Mubarak-era criminal conviction, nominated another high-ranking Brotherhood figure - the comparatively dull Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi won, garnering a razor-thin 51.7 percent of the vote, as reluctant liberals threw their support behind him rather than allow his opponent, former prime minister and Air Force officer Ahmed Shafiq, to usher in a return of the Mubarak regime. Again, he pledged to work cooperatively with the opposition, whose fears of an Islamist power grab - what they would come to call the “Brotherhoodization” of the state - were growing.
In June, as the country nervously awaited the announcement of the presidential election, an array of liberal politicians and public intellectuals gathered at the Fairmont Hotel, near Cairo’s international airport, to announce their support for Morsi. Many, including youth leader Shady el-Ghazali Harb, said Morsi had agreed to form a “national unity” cabinet and appoint women and minority Christians as vice presidents.
Morsi did neither. His administration began trying to assert control over certain ministries, appointing allies in the bureaucracy and as governors of some of the country’s 27 governorates. Security forces continued to use overwhelming violence against demonstrators.
But the efforts would mostly be in vain. Far from the “Brotherhoodization” feared by liberal opponents, Morsi’s campaign to “reform” Egypt ran into a powerful and well-entrenched bureaucracy, an array of institutions that over years of patronage and corrupt political management has become what some observers call “the deep state,’’ and which political analyst Amr el-Shobaki describes as “balkanized.”
In the wake of Morsi’s fall, it seems clear that the Brotherhood’s efforts to put a new plan into action were “fully blunted and many of its changes swiftly reversed,” Egypt scholar and political science professor Nathan Brown wrote.
The critical moment came in November, as a constitutional assembly selected by the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly drafted what was meant to be the founding document for post-Mubarak Egypt. Morsi, sensing the state’s growing rejection - the supreme court had already dissolved the People’s Assembly on grounds legal experts considered legitimate - issued a set of decrees placing the assembly and himself above judicial review.
Mass protests broke out against what many called a dictatorial assumption of authority by a “new pharaoh.” They continued into the new year, gaining momentum again on January 25, the second anniversary of the revolution. One by one, Morsi’s specially appointed advisers began to resign, losing him a handpicked team that was to maintain at least the appearance of consultation with opposition groups. The new constitution passed, but not before all non-Islamist members of the assembly dropped out in protest. The courts again struck a blow, putting an indefinite hold on Morsi’s plans to hold new parliamentary elections.
The crumbling economy, which Morsi’s government proved incapable of improving, lent momentum to growing dissatisfaction which finally culminated in a youth-led movement called Tamarod, or “rebellion.” After a nationwide signature campaign and quiet negotiations with military intermediaries, as well as financial and logistical assistance from wealthy liberal businessmen, Tamarod rallied hundreds of thousands into the streets on June 30.
But what began with unprecedented mobilization has turned into a military-led campaign against the Brotherhood that has some activists worried about a slide toward violence and ultra-nationalism.
“The presidential palace area right now is nothing short of a [Sisi] cult carnival,” tweeted one well-known Egyptian observer, referring to anti-Brotherhood protesters in Cairo. “I hope he uses this wisely.”
Other analysts are more worried. Many see an effort among prominent liberal thinkers and members of the media to turn the Brotherhood into “others” - non-Egyptians who don’t care for the future of the country. The mass killings at the Republican Guards Club received scant attention from television channels, lending the perception that pro-Morsi protesters were not considered equal to their rivals.
“At best this was an irresponsible effort to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, to gain leverage in whatever negotiations ensue,” Michael Hanna, an Egypt scholar with the Century Foundation, told the Boston Globe. “At worst, it will green-light violence at lower levels and potentially provide a mandate to use force to break up the sit-in.”
As the two sides maneuver for a resolution to the crisis and while Morsi and around a dozen advisers remain held almost incommunicado in indefinite military detention, Egypt’s “deep state” has begun to reassemble, freed from Brotherhood-led efforts to reshuffle the system.
Many ministers appointed by the new, military-installed president, Adly Mansour, have extensive experience in Mubarak’s regime. As the generals and the old guard work together to reorganize the transition, those who want neither Brotherhood nor military-backed rule may find themselves out in the cold, facing an implacable and popular opponent.
“On June 30, a popular uprising occurred. But the aftermath reeks less of revolutionary than restorationist enthusiasm,” Brown wrote in Foreign Policy. “The Egyptian state today resembles nothing so much as the various parts and organs of Frankenstein's monster attempting to assemble themselves -- but doing so without the assistance of Dr. Frankenstein and working not inside a secretive laboratory but instead in Tahrir Square, before a sometimes cheering crowd.”