This article is the second part of a two-part article. You can read part one here.
Eventually, the day came. The Egyptian military arrested Mohammad Mursi and his aides and set into process a new “road-map” (I always wondered why anyone in the Arab region would ever use that label for anything they deemed positive, given its history). That night, I was in the Intercontinental Hotel, bordering Tahrir Square, describing the night’s events as a “coup,” and “popularly backed.”
It was a label that made pretty much everyone in Egyptian politics unhappy. The word “coup” to this day makes many opponents to the Muslim Brotherhood bristle to no end, who insist it was a “revolution.” Of course, the two words aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and I tended to think of the January 25 revolutionary uprising as a “revolution” that had a “coup” on the February 11, for example. But a transfer of power put into operation by a military leadership is fairly clear in its implications. As for the appellation of “revolution,” that’s a value judgement that I’ve written about before.
Egypt’s youth know they are meant to have rights and they know that those in power can be held accountable. That simple realization cannot be undoneH.A. Hellyer
The “popularly backed” part of my description had nothing to do with the morality of the move on July 3 – it was an empirical assessment. Despite my criticisms and critiques of the Brotherhood, I had argued in an interview a few days before that if the protests were successful, the propensity for violence would increase, and that it would be “very bad for the story for Egyptian democracy” as I thought it likely that it could only happen through force of arms or blood. I was relieved that the protests had ended without widespread violence – if nothing else, the military’s intervention meant most people went home instead of clashing in the streets as I expected they inevitably would. But I also wrote the day afterwards that violence via other ways, particularly against Mursi’s partisans as well as from them, was still likely, and needed to be guarded against. I had no idea how prescient that would turn out to be.
At the same time, I was also left with little doubt on July 3 that the military’s removal of Mursi had been popularly supported by a substantial majority of the country’s population. Whether opponents of July 3 liked what happened that day or not – and I had hoped other alternatives would have been possible – I believed the military’s move would not be resisted by a critical mass of the country’s population. In that regard, as I later wrote, Mursi possessed legal legitimacy but lost popular legitimacy and effective executive authority.
The president’s executive authority was clearly crippled. Whether it should have been or not was another issue, but the facts on the ground made it clear that it was difficult to consider it in any way effective. Within the state’s machinery in the various ministries and bureaucracy, the Islamist president had begun his reign with an awkward relationship when he took office. For years, that bureaucracy had, in large part, regarded the Brotherhood as an enemy of the state. For some months after Mursi’s entering of the presidency, substantial portions of the state played ball – the police, for example, followed orders during the now infamous clashes outside of the presidential palace in December 2012, where they attacked anti-Mursi protesters.
By June 30, however, the state was more or less in open rebellion of the presidency. So was Mursi’s own government – within hours of the protests on the June 30, cabinet members began to resign. Within a couple of days, most of his ministers had deserted him in protest of what they considered was his unwillingness to compromise. Days before the military removed him, Mursi’s government was not functional. One can argue he was partly to blame for that – one can argue any president from outside of the traditional elite would have faced the same – and there is evidence both for and against both assertions. But empirically, his government was practically non-existent in all but name.
On the popular level, the Egyptian public was in a sad state, politically speaking. Repeated public opinion polls carried out by the Gallup Organisation and the research consortium Tahrir Trends (disclaimer: I was involved with both at different times) showed the Egyptian public losing confidence in the Brotherhood and Mursi. Moreover, the research showed that same public losing confidence in all political forces. One institution, however, had managed to keep its popular standing with the Egyptian population fairly steadfast over the course of 2012 and 2013: and that was the Egyptian military. Irrespective of the calamitous transitional process that the military’s leadership had presided over in 2011 and 2012, the military retained an impressive position in the eyes of the Egyptian public. Recurrent, nationally representative face-to-face interviews confirmed – nine out of ten Egyptians expressed confidence in the military almost through the entire post-Mubarak transition until the July 3, 2013.
That support, justified or not, for the military would indelibly define not only the events of June 30 – or even of July 3 – but of Egypt from then until now.
Support for the military
That is not to say the military did not ever lose some support. The revolutionary camp that was responsible for the original 2011 protests soon lost faith in the military’s ability to steer Egypt into the right correct direction after Mubarak’s ouster. But given the positive portrayal of the military institution in the national media, the educational system, and the general desire for stability amidst a tumultuous economic situation, research consistently showed that the military could always count on at least eight out of ten Egyptians to give it support, throughout the period of 2011-2013.
Given Egypt’s nascent experience with democracy, which had not yet delivered what Egyptians had expected it to (with vastly unrealistic expectations), the overwhelming public support for the military, and the immense unpopularity of the Brotherhood and other political forces, things seemed rather clear on July 3. A coup by the military had taken place and whether we liked it or not, or partially explained it due to the private media’s own campaign against the Brotherhood, it was clear that the majority of the population were quite content. Nevertheless, even at this point, prior to any state crackdown against the Brotherhood and dissent, as well as militant and terrorist violence, it was clear Egypt had just entered a very treacherous phase. I couldn’t have imagined how treacherous it would turn out to be.
As the night of July 3 ensued, and for weeks afterwards, I wondered: what other scenarios could have been worked towards? It was clear on the one hand that the status quo could not have continued. The state was in full rebellion against the presidency, and millions (though not 30 million!) of Egyptians had mobilised against the same. Most ministers, as previously mentioned, had resigned and it seemed inevitable, based on the statements of all sides, that if the standoff continued, there would be bloody clashes between the parties. Something had to give. What would it be?
What were the alternatives?
People asked – and still ask – what were the alternatives? I wondered myself – but even before July 3, I saw no hope for any route that would be good for Egypt while all sides played a zero-sum game. For Egypt’s transition to democracy to survive, at least one of the power pivots in Egypt would have to compromise. No one was interested in that, because they were all interested in winning and thus Egypt, essentially, lost. The irony was that Egypt’s result then pushed Tunisians to realise that in a transition, that sort of rigid approach would mean the worst options would become the only options.
That night, as I completed my interviews, I walked across Qasr el-Nil bridge. I hadn’t – and never did – step foot into Tahrir Square during the June 30 protests. I had my reasons. On the bridge, I found someone who had been in the square, and who now was in a state of shock. A dear friend and political activist, he had participated in the protests but when the military removed Mursi, he was gobsmacked at the public’s reaction. “Don’t they remember last time?” he asked me. “How can they be carrying policemen on their shoulders, when on this same bridge, the police were shooting at us during the 18 days of the January 25 revolution?” I didn’t have an answer for him.
Egypt’s constitution now talks about the revolution of the January 25 – and it also talks about the revolution of the June 30. As I mentioned, the appellation of “revolution” is, essentially, a value judgement and one suspects that historians and analysts alike will argue about how best to describe those two events. I’ve come to the conclusion that the revolutionary uprising of the January 25 hasn’t been successful yet and that a generation’s chance has been squandered in the midst of a power struggle between partisans of the Brotherhood and forces opposed to the revolution.
But I never doubted that January 25 was a revolutionary uprising. Until now, its promise continues to reinvigorate Egyptians to fight for a better future – and miraculously, that small revolutionary core remains resilient. Even as many of their number grow pessimistic and cynical, they still struggle for that future – and if there is one chance that has been lost, I reckon another chance will emerge. Egypt’s youth – who happen to be the overwhelming majority of the population – are unlikely to have it any other way. They know they are meant to have rights and they know that those in power can be held accountable. That simple realisation cannot be undone.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.