Egypt’s revolution strikes back

This time, however, optimism is replaced by despair — and the country’s problems will likely only worsen

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Opponents of Egypt's Islamist president Mohammed Morsi at a protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)
Opponents of Egypt's Islamist president Mohammed Morsi at a protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

Finally, it happened.

After four days of protests attended by tens of millions of people, and more than 40 deaths, the official announcement came from the Egyptian military on Wednesday a little after 9 p.m. local time. Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, as promised, presented the “road map.”

This was not an outline or a proposal for change, but a full-fledged military coup.

The loaded weapon that the army unveiled Monday evening, in the form of a 48-hour ultimatum, discharged two days later with the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the appointment in his place of the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour.

However, in a departure from theatrical tradition, it is unlikely that the gunfire is the last act in the Egyptian political drama. The opponents of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have begun their celebrations in Tahrir Square, but the protests of hundreds of thousands of the movement’s supporters in Raba al-Adwiya Plaza indicates that the quiet yet forceful removal of an elected president is not likely to solve the crisis or heal the rupture in Egypt.

After this military takeover in quasi-civilian guise, Egypt stands before one of the most serious crises in its history and is on the brink of civil war. Dozens have died in the past few days, and hundreds have been injured.

“This simply shows how unprecedented the split in Egyptian society is,” said Prof. Yoram Meital, Egypt expert and chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. “This is a historic rift. The positions the two sides are currently clinging to herald a deepening split. This may lead to a worsening of violence, and even the release of the military road map won’t necessarily soften the severity of the crisis.”

The events of the last few days, perhaps most of all in Cairo, seem destined to become an integral component of the history curriculum at schools and universities. Democracy nearly — but only nearly — at its best. Millions of people, an endless human swarm, were wrapped around the Egyptian capital from all sides (documented by a helicopter that filmed the demonstrations from the air), almost like a science fiction movie, demanding Morsi’s ouster. The crowd filled the bridges, the streets, the plazas, Cairo’s famous boardwalk and the squares in front of the two palaces, and they again cried the slogan used against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 — “Arhal!” — “Be gone!”

Unlike the hope that characterized the protesters two-and-a-half years ago, however, a certain amount of despair was apparent in the eyes of the youths who took to the streets, and they have plenty of reasons for it. Under Morsi, Egypt disintegrated. For the young, both religious and secular, there is no professional or economic future. The universities are producing wave after wave of educated young Egyptians who find themselves hungry and unemployed.

The chaos and absence of law and order are evident on almost every corner, leading citizens to arm themselves and take the law into their own hands.

“Think for a moment about the average Egyptian,” offers an Israeli who has visited Egypt multiple times. “He can’t buy an apartment for himself because he doesn’t have enough money. He can’t travel in a car, because the gas stations have run dry. If he has an air conditioner, he won’t turn it on because of the many power outages, and there isn’t even money in the ATMs. This is a revolutionary situation. That’s why we see millions in the streets.”

The problem that the demonstrators dwell upon less is the fact that Morsi’s successor may have no better solutions.

The number of desperate Egyptians in the summer of 2013 far exceeds the number of optimists who went out to demonstrate against Mubarak. Various estimates from the Egyptian interior ministry claim that 17 million people demonstrated against Morsi on Sunday. The opposition contends that the number is even higher, closer to 27 million. By way of comparison, during the 2011 demonstrations 7 million people took to the streets.

Orit Perlov, who studies social networks in the Arab world at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, explains that three primary groups who were not at the 2011 protests joined the demonstrations this time and made them even larger: “One, young people aged 18-22 [those who currently lead the Tamarod movement, which organized the demonstrations]. Two, Mubarak’s people — the National Democratic Party members and its government apparatus. This huge group includes conservatives of all stripes and is considered particularly strong in the cities of the Delta and the cities of the canal, like Port Said, Suez, a-Sharkia, and Ismailiya. And three, the urban poor — residents of the impoverished cities around Cairo, such as Ein a-Shams and Imbaba. They all united into an extraordinary coalition that only occurs once in a great while. For these people, the revival promised by Morsi never materialized, there is no democracy but theocracy in its place, and everyday problems of electricity, fuel and money intensify the despair.”

But the despair is not expected to diminish in the coming days, perhaps weeks, despite the fighting spirit emanating from Tahrir Square. One of the protesters told Walla News on Wednesday morning that Morsi had no choice but to leave. “The people will topple him, he cannot confront millions of people. The Muslim Brotherhood has an abundance of economic interests in Egypt and they will become targets if Morsi does not leave office. They know this and therefore will be forced to withdraw.”

In the end, the picture was slightly different, as Morsi did not leave his post because of mass protests. It was the army that ousted him, by force.

What happened to the Brothers?

It is difficult not to admire the courage of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Even after the military presented its ultimatum, Morsi and his friends refused to withdraw and accept the dictate. They may have underestimated the determination of Defense Minister Sissi, instead waiting to see who would blink first.

Perhaps they hoped to buy time — that is, to survive the coming days, absorb the protest, difficult as that would have been if it deteriorated into serious violence, in order to safely reach Ramadan, which begins in only four days. They hoped that Ramadan would fall like a coma upon Egypt: The fast, the heat and the fatigue, taken together, they anticipated, would leave the masses in their homes and the demonstrations would slowly dissolve.

In retrospect, this was only the Muslim Brotherhood’s wishful thinking and not a realistic scenario. The army refused to blink or allow them to remain in power until Ramadan, and took the necessary steps.

For the Brotherhood, the wave of protests that has washed over Egypt since Sunday was “undemocratic.” To them, the decisive victory of the movement in the Egyptian parliamentary elections and their narrow win afterwards in the presidential elections were proof of the immense support that the idea “Islam is the solution” garners. “We will not accept a violation of the people’s choice,” they said repeatedly, and refused to recognize the fact that the union between the millions and the army would hasten the end of their regime.

One of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s biggest mistakes was that they acted over the past year primarily in the party’s interests, not in that of the state. They repeatedly proved to the secular Egyptians who voted for Morsi how wrong they were when they tried to impose various Islamist laws, particularly a constitution straight from the workshop of Supreme Guide Muhammad Badie.

In the economic realm, they demonstrated their inexperience, perhaps even inability, to cope with Egypt’s complex problems. In recent months, criticism against them emanated from people previously considered leaders in the movement, like Abd al-Munim Abu-Fattouh, but they chose to ignore it.

“This is the worst crisis for the movement since the Officers’ Coup in 1952,” said Professor Meital. “In recent years two primary streams led the Muslim Brotherhood in opposing directions. The reformers wanted to move in a pragmatic direction, starting in 2005. However, the appointment of Muhammed Badie as Supreme Guide in 2010 caused the leadership to pass into the hands of the conservatives. The policies of Badie may explain the Brothers’ absence from the demonstrations against Mubarak in the early days of the 2011 revolution. The breakaway of Abd al-Munim Abu-Fattouh also illustrates the scope of the crisis among the Brotherhood leadership and the fierce internal debate in the movement.”

Still, Meital indicated that in recent media discourse around the resignation of Morsi, only senior leaders who clung to Badie’s conservative line were heard, saying that the president would continue to function without early elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt took a hit, and the removal of Morsi from power is an immense blow. But the movement was and remains the largest and strongest political body in Egypt. In fact, if another presidential election were held today, the Brothers would still have the best chance to win.

“The opposition is not unified and the traditional forces are still alive and functioning,” said Professor Asher Susser from the Middle East Department at Tel Aviv University, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. “The religious motif in Egypt is still there. However, the institution of a strong and sovereign Arab state is disappearing. What has emerged from the Arab Spring, not only in Egypt, is that the countries that experience a revolution are failed or on the way to failing, with social and economic problems that have no imminent solution. This means that the Middle East will be unstable for an extended period. Citizens’ personal security disappears and the central government is weakened. I don’t see much good coming out of the Arab Spring.”

Still, Susser also argues that Israel often sees developments in too gloomy a light. “We tend to focus too much on dangers and less on opportunities, such as with the Palestinians. Here Arab weakness can actually help. But beyond that, we are no longer surrounded by strong Arab countries. Our problem in Israel lies ostensibly today in the weakness of the states and not in their strength. And therefore I claim that there are opportunities and not just problems.

“This is almost the complete opposite of what our founding fathers worried about,” said Susser, “the fear of existential threats that brought about the construction of the reactor in Dimona. We shuddered in fear of what the Arab countries will do to us. Now we are afraid of their dissolution.”

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