Is a Second Revolution Really What Egypt Needs?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Supporters of the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement are taking to streets on June 30th in what is likely to be a massive show of force. Their goals are deceptively simple — pushing President Mohamed Morsi out of power and holding early presidential elections. When asked, however, how they plan to do this, the answers acquire a certain vagueness. Egyptians have every right to call for Morsi to resign — and that right must be protected — but he is obviously under no obligation to heed their calls. So, then what?

There is no legal or constitutional mechanism through which Morsi, who was elected with 51.7 percent of the vote just a year ago, can be ousted. Realistically, there is only one way he falls – if mass violence and a total collapse of public order provoke the military to step in. In this sense, for Tamarod to “succeed,” Egypt must fail. For some in the opposition, this short-term cost — as devastating as it might be — is justified because the alternative of continued Muslim Brotherhood rule will fundamentally alter the very nature of Egypt.

Opposition figures have been flirting with the possibility of various kinds of coups against an incompetent, unpopular — though democratically elected — president. Some, like April 6th’s Tarek al-Khouli and human rights activist Dalia Ziada, have explicitly called for military intervention. Others, like Mohamed ElBaradei and Ahmed el-Borai have taken to issuing what the journalist Evan Hill calls “non-request requests” for the army to step in. Still others, including leaders of Tamarod, have called for the judiciary to intervene and “annul” Morsi’s presidency.

According to Article 174 of Egypt’s (admittedly outdated) penal code, “incitement to overthrow the government” is a punishable offense. In most established democracies, there are similar clauses prohibiting “advocating overthrow of government,” as I pointed out here in The Atlantic last August. But, as revolutionaries themselves will be the first to point out, revolutions are, by definition, illegal. Something illegal can, at the same time, be right or legitimate, particularly if one is operating according to revolutionary rather than democratic legitimacy.

Opting for a revolutionary course this late in the game — after more than two years of transition and five elections — means starting from scratch with little guarantee that the second time will be much better. At some point, the past cannot be undone, except perhaps through mass violence on an unprecedented scale. If the first elected Islamist president is toppled, then what will keep others from trying to topple a future liberal president? If one looks at Tamarod’s justifications for seeking Morsi’s overthrow, the entire list consists of problems that will almost certainly plague his successor. They have little to do with a flawed transition process and a rushed constitution that ran roughshod over opposition objections and everything to do with performance (“Morsi was a total failure in achieving every single goal, no security has been reestablished and no social security realized, [giving] clear proof that he is not fit for the governance of such a country as Egypt,” reads the Tamarod statement of principles). Legitimacy cannot depend solely or even primarily on effectiveness or competence. If it did, revolution could be justified anywhere at any time, including in at least several European democracies.

That said, there is little doubt that Morsi suffers, perhaps more than anything else, from a legitimacy deficit, which, in an un-virtuous cycle, undermines governance, and so on. The key, then, is finding a way to bring disaffected Egyptians back into the political process — a process from which they believe, with good reason, they have been excluded. This will require major concessions on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s part, including guaranteeing a fair electoral law with robust international monitoring, revising the most controversial articles of the constitution, and the formation of a caretaker national unity government until parliamentary elections are held later this year. Some in the opposition, of course, see the continuation of Brotherhood rule in near-apocalyptic terms and are unlikely to be satisfied with such concessions. The hope, though, is that enough concessions will be enough.

U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson has come under fire forurging Egypt’s opposition groups to re-enter the system and make the transition from street action to organizing for elections. Opposition figure and business tycoon Naguib Sawiris colorfully Tweeted, “[ambassador], bless us with your silence.” Indeed, Patterson perhaps got the tone wrong, and at times came across as patronizing (for example, “I recommend Egyptians get organized. Join or start a political party…this will take time.”) But, on the merits, she was onto something. There is a time for revolution. And there is a time for the often unsatisfying but necessary give-and-take of politics. Here the outlines of a “deal” become more apparent. If Morsi makes meaningful concessions — and actually follows through on them — opposition leaders can reciprocate by committing to work within the electoral process, in effect shoring up the legitimacy of the political order, however flawed it might be. If Tamarod, even if indirectly, moves Egypt toward such an outcome, that will be a legacy that all Egyptians can applaud.