A huge number of people flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak. If you didn’t know the date, it could have been from January 25th 2013, 2012, or the original.
This is not a protest though- it is a massive show of support for the military rule, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is expected to win an early presidential election that was just called. In the end, it seems Egypt’s political power has remained in one place through all this chaos- the military. The three years have seen elections, new constitutions, and a period of government by the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades the enemy of the military-backed Egyptian state.
Tahrir is now a monument with special rules. It is a place to celebrate the military that ousted Mubarak, the military that allowed for free elections, the military that ousted that government, and the military that calls new elections they will win.
As with Syria, the situation in Egypt is complex. It is not a story, crafted by a single author with intent. There are no flawless protagonists to carry the day, or villains you can only despise. There is just blood, smoke, tears, and causalities in the thousands.
The day that the military deposed Morsi and began efforts to shut down or contain the Muslim Brotherhoods, the Huffington Post ran a huge headline. Below was a picture of one of the main generals, above simply read “FREEDOM.”
To some the end of Morsi is freedom, to others it is quite the opposite. To everyone, it is carnage. This was Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood is planning a “day of anger” on Friday. I assume such pictures will continue to filter out.
The revolutionaries who ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak demanded bread and social justice, but after two-and-a-half years of military and Muslim Brotherhood rule, the government has made little progress towards those goals.
Al Jazeera English has a comprehensive feature on the economic problems that Egypt has faced in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The issues are myriad, mostly rooted in bad debt and low international confidence in the Egyptian pound or their ability to pay back loans. It does raise the question of how a political revolution can keep itself intact, given that some economic hardship is guaranteed.
Economist Ahmed Ghoneim sums up the issues when he says “[Morsi’s administration] was only thinking of politics, not the economy.” While the Muslim Brotherhood had persisted as a political entity for over eighty years, they were unable to address fundamental problems and have ministers that were both loyal to the Brotherhood and skilled at their job. Ultimately that political support begins to dry up, as the unemployment rate, GDP per capita growth rate, and currency value begin to worsen.
Revolutions like those in Egypt also suffer from what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The chaos and danger of large-scale protests, police and military action, and political upheaval can be deadly to tourism and foreign financing. The feature describes the shop owners, travel agents, and museum guides without clients, and large loans from the IMF and other Islamic countries being difficult to secure due to risk and a lack of backing from large banks. If there are economic roots in the 2011 upheaval, they are difficult to solve in the aftermath. Cutting corruption and getting new diplomatic ties can help, but it may not be enough.
I think of how many Latin American and African revolutions have been reversed when economic progress was promised, then not delivered. While a lack of democracy and civil rights are a key reason that revolutions happen, demand for bread and jobs are just as powerful reasons- if often implicit.
The lack of focus and direction in Egypt’s post-revolution economy was where Morsi’s political skills withered. The kind of things a good economic minister does are not politically popular. They are not the things you win elections running on- tax increases, harsh adjustments to please foreign lenders- but they are how you solve systemic problems. Hopefully a new administration will understand that.
There is a quote attributed to various great leaders, that a society is three missed meals away from anarchy. Ultimately it comes down the basics. If it gets bad, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, or what they believe or promise.
(photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA, taken July 3rd in Cairo)
Muhammad Morsi has been overthrown by the military. The controversial president of Egypt was elected in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that removed Hosni Mubarak. This marks the second military-led change of power in as many years- the first to remove an unelected autocrat, the second a democratically-elected but unpopular successor. There also appears to be a concurrent roundup of major Muslim Brotherhood leaders by the military. The extent of military action into politics and the length that it will suspend the constitution for remains to be seen.
The question is, then, whether this is fresh start for the politics of Egypt, or a trend of popular government alternating with military control. Several countries have been unable to link together peaceful and democratic transfers of power- the history of Bangladesh and Pakistan is one of civilian governments being cut short by military coup. Nigeria was able to do such a transfer in 2007, after close to fifty years of instability and autocratic rule.
The relationship between most people and the military seems to be positive and strong, as Tahrir was home to chants of “The people and the army are one hand!” However, each one of these actions will be sure to alienate sections of the electorate- Morsi’s support was significant and the Muslim Brotherhood historically important in Egyptian politics.
A question to meditate on is what political and religious liberals should think of these events. Some Egyptian liberals celebrated the removal of Morsi, but does such a precedent mean elected liberal leaders may also face a military takeover as well? Morsi’s defenders emphasize his “legitimacy”- what makes a head of state in this context legitimate?
With the constitution suspended, it looks like there may be another long process of rewriting the structure of Egyptian government. The documents are a cornerstone of the controversy- whether the president is given too much power, and whether civil rights are given enough protection. It is to be seen if Egypt in the coming month has a stronger foundation to work upon, or if it is weak and unstable already.