Millions of Egyptians are continuing to take to the streets. They are calling on President Mohamed Morsi to resign and to hold early presidential elections. At the same time many express concern about the army’s July 1 statement and the potential for a return to military rule at the hands of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The statement said that SCAF would impose its own “roadmap” to exit the current impasse if no solutions surface in the next 48 hours:
The Armed Forces repeats its call to respond to the people’s demands and gives everyone a 48-hour deadline to carry the burden of these historic circumstances. [The Armed Forces] will not tolerate anyone doing less than what is needed to carry out their responsibility.
That the statement left open the possibly of a military intervention or a coup has led many people to question the wisdom behind the current mobilization. Others have equated these protests with an open invitation for military rule and the death of Egypt’s emergent democracy. While the current standoff between the protesters and the president lends itself to a variety of unpleasant scenarios that would be detrimental for the country, the binary between democracy and military rule is misleading.
There is little doubt that left to its own devices the military will try to maximize its own influence in any future transition should the president resign. This is a lesson many Egyptians learned the hard way after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. It is inconceivable that anyone could call for overturning the political system without expecting the military to play some role in the subsequent transition, however minor, as evidenced by the army’s recent statement. At the same time, there is an infinite range of possibilities between full-fledged military rule and a civilian-led transition.
The proposal that the Tamarod campaign spokesperson unveiled last week calls on the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court to assume the office of the presidency for an interim period until presidential elections are convened. In the proposal, a national salvation government, headed by a revolutionary figure, would manage the country’s affairs. Security affairs would be handed temporarily to a National Defense Council composed of eight military leaders and seven civilians. Similar proposals have been circulating among various political groups. Another idea some political figures endorsed is the convening of a national referendum on whether or not Morsi should finish his term. As of now, reports have indicated that should political forces fail to agree to a solution, the military intends to suspend the Constitution, dissolve the legislature and install a civilian-controlled council, though the details of that plan remain unclear. Regardless, the current moment is a reminder that during SCAF’s rule, revolutionary forces consistently called for a civilian presidential council to manage the post-Mubarak transition — a proposal that the Muslim Brotherhood also refused to entertain.
Indeed, there are some political figures and protesters, most notably those gathered near the Ministry of Defense, who openly call on the military to intervene. However, the fact of the matter remains that the 22 million Egyptians who signed the Tamarod petition endorsed early presidential elections, not military rule.
For those who have just tuned into the news this week, the warnings of a military return may be a jolt. But for those who have been watching Egypt for the past two years, these concerns are far from the realities on the ground. For one, the military never left the political realm, even after Morsi’s inauguration on June 30 2012. In fact, the political basis for Morsi’s rule today is a pact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. The former controls the presidency and the sectors of the bureaucracy that do not pose a direct challenge to its interests. The military retains its abnormal political and economic privileges, including its vast economic empire, far from any meaningful civilian oversight. It is for this reason that the Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored Constitution delegates military affairs and budget to an officers-dominated council, distant from conventional parliamentary accountability or public transparency. In addition and thanks to the subservience of the presidency to the officers, no steps have been taken since Morsi took office to reform the security sector as a whole, not just the military establishment, which remains a virtual “state within a state.”
For those not following the news the last two years, they may also miss or forget that SCAF leaders’ “safe exit” after the formal end of the transition was “sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood.” The military has remained above the law under the Morsi presidency. To this day, no senior military official has been brought to justice for crimes committed under SCAF rule. This impunity flies in the face of popular calls for bringing those suspected of involvement in killing protesters to justice. Last April, when word came out that Morsi received a presidential fact-finding commission report that implicated military leaders in killing and torturing revolutionaries, he refused to act. Instead, he appeased senior military leaders with promotions, and rebuffed what he characterized as “insults” against the Armed Forces. During his infamous June 26, 2013 speech, in which he criticized calls for his resignation, President Morsi not only showered the leaders of the Armed Forces with praise, but also threatened to resort to military prosecution in dealing with his challengers. In short, there may be military lackeys protesting on the streets against Morsi, but make no mistake, the presidential palace is packed tighter still of them. The struggle to bring the military under meaningful civilian control is ongoing and will remain pending, whether or not Morsi resigns.
The military, however, has quickly come to the realization that the protesters are imposing new realities on the ground. Those realities threaten the future of the current political order and, by implication, the privileges the military was able to secure under Muslim Brotherhood rule. The Muslim Brotherhood regime, however favorable to the military, has become prone to uncertainties that the officers are reluctant to accept. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the army is opportunistically sending signals of support to the protesters in order to ensure that its special status is not compromised in a post-Morsi Egypt. The army’s abandonment of its pact with the Brotherhood is a testament to the power that decentralized revolutionary popular mobilization has accumulated over the past year. A new consciousness is sweeping Egyptian society. It is true military leaders are attempting to preserve their role as the Egyptian state’s guardian. However, these attempts are in large part the product of the overwhelming will and defiance of the millions of Egyptians who had had enough of the current regime.
There is no question that among opposition political forces, there are some who are willing to live in a political order that grants the military anti-democratic privileges (I have written about this in more detail here). However, such an outcome is not an inevitability of Morsi’s downfall. This is especially the case given that many of those who are taking to the streets have suffered the wrath of military rule. They are unlikely to accept any special privileges to the Armed Forces without a fight.
In any conventional democracy, poor performance is not a good enough reason for terminating a presidential term short of formal impeachment or a vote of no confidence. But the situation in Egypt is more complicated than any conventional democracy. As president, Morsi heads the executive branch. He is also the manager of the ongoing transition, which has failed to produce a functional political system in which all relevant players agree to the rules of the game. Morsi signed into law a Constitution that failed to garner credible support outside his coalition. The turnout for the referendum that ratified the Constitution did not exceed 33 percent. Politics in Egypt have been virtually missing in action since November 22, 2012, when the president granted himself enormous powers through a unilateral decree, which paved the way for passing the current Constitution. The opposition is unwilling to recognize the current political order. They will not engage in dialogue with the president until he appoints a neutral committee to draft amendments to the current Constitution, forms a national salvation government and appoints a neutral prosecutor general. Morsi has done none of the above. And so the stalemate continues.
In the absence of real national politics, there have been no credible means for channeling widespread popular discontent with the current government. This explains the surge in protests and strikes throughout the country, as well as the overwhelming support for the Tamarod campaign’s grassroots initiative. It takes a lot of diligence to ignore the reality that the existing political system is defunct. In such a context, prevalent media sound bites that the current protests are aimed at “aborting Egyptian democracy” are simplistic and naïve. That so-called Egyptian democracy never saw the light of day.
Historians can spend years figuring out how to divide the blame between the Brotherhood and the opposition (and perhaps SCAF) for the current fiasco. But beyond the blame game, one thing remains uncontestable: You cannot ram through a Constitution that the majority of relevant political players objected to, and yet express surprise that people do not recognize the legitimacy of the current political order, and are demanding the president’s resignation. Rectifying this problem demands, at the very least, a new, inclusive transition that could generate the type of politics capable of bridging part of the long-standing gap between people’s basic demands, and national political institutions. Certainly no alternative transitional framework can succeed in Egypt if it is managed by the partisan sensibilities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, though it must not exclude them either. After all, if the current mobilization leads to an NDP-style marginalization of the Brotherhood, then what was the point of the January 25 revolution? Whatever its mechanisms and details, any solution must begin by heeding the people’s demand for Morsi’s resignation.
There are many who claim that those who took to the streets on June 30 are full of supporters of the former ruling party and those who want to hijack revolutionary mobilization for their own regressive agendas. For those who have lived through the struggle for transformative change in Egypt before June 30 — and even before January 25 2011 — the response is: What is new? Has this not been the story of the January 25 revolution all along, a struggle against reactionary forces inside the state and within the opposition? Was the fight against the Mubarak regime not worth it because it featured the Muslim Brotherhood and their polarizing presence? Were calls for an end to SCAF’s rule unwieldy because Salafis were doing the same? If the answer is no, then why should we stop resisting the Muslim Brotherhood’s oppression because the former NDP is on board? There is value to thinking critically and cautiously about who will benefit from the stances one adopts, and applying some strategic thinking in choosing an appropriate course of action: Vote to approve objectionable constitutional amendments in the March 19, 2011 referendum in order to expedite the end of military rule; or vote for Morsi in the presidential elections in order to prevent the former regime from reestablishing itself. But there are days when principles just have to win out and trump strategic planning. And June 30 happens to be one of these days.
This is not to downplay the difficulties that partisans of the January 25 revolution face today. Even if Morsi does in fact leave, the struggle for building a social order that delivers “bread, freedom and social justice” will be as fraught as it has ever been. This is particularly the case given the proliferation of voices expressing tacit support for military rule, or applying exclusionary measures against the Brotherhood. Perhaps the current standoff will lead revolutionaries back to a fight to bring down military rule, a continued confrontation with the current regime, an entirely new struggle, or combination of all the above. Concluding that the revolution will ultimately prevail in current and prospective struggles may be too hopeful. But Egyptians, as the events of the past few days have shown, are refusing to give up hope, adhering to the famous revolutionary slogan “al-ya’s khiyana,” (hopelessness is treason) — words that found new meaning on June 30.
This article is published jointly with Jadaliyya.