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.
In September 2011, I was part of a diverse group of Egyptian activists, from liberals to Salafis, which we set up for a single purpose: To persuade all candidates running in the presidential elections to commit to keeping the military out of politics for good.
All but one candidate, the former United Nations diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, signed up. When we sent a petition to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, asking them to make the same pledge — to end military rule and hand over power to civilians — they didn’t bother to reply.
I’m telling this story to show how little regard Egypt’s army commanders have had for civilian politicians from day one. Now, citing demands from the people (and there is no doubt many Egyptians wanted a coup), the military, led by Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, has deposed the country’s first freely elected president after just a year in office, and suspended the civilian constitution that 64 percent of Egyptian voters approved in December 2012. The generals will probably now appoint a committee to draw up a new constitution.
The junta overnight voided 14 nationwide rounds of free and fair democratic votes. Six of these were for the lower house of the parliament; four were for the upper house; two were for presidential elections; and two were constitutional referendums. The winners were the same in every case, and some of them are now in jail. The losers were the same each time, too. These included ElBaradei, who on July 6 accepted an offer to become interim prime minister, only for it to be withdrawn after opposition from the sole Islamist party that supports the coup.
It is important to grasp all of this clearly, in order to understand the mind sets of the two groups of people who will determine Egypt’s fate — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. There are broadly three possibilities.
One, the most hopeful and least likely, is that the coup will serve as a launching pad for liberal democracy in Egypt.
For this to work will require the Muslim Brotherhood to acquiesce, return peacefully to the electoral system and then lose in the next election. It assumes, too, that the military will quickly oversee elections and retire into the background again, leaving the Brotherhood free to campaign and win re-election unobstructed. Given the deep sense of injustice on one side and the cynical approach to civilian politics on the other, this isn’t going to happen. On July 5, 36 people were killed in pro-Mursi protests in Cairo, and a day later militants blew up the pipeline that carries natural gas to Jordan.
The second scenario resembles the experience of Turkey in 1997, when a group of generals from the National Security Council sent a memo to the country’s Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, asking him to resign. Erbakan obliged, and arrests and mild repression followed, including the closing of the Welfare Party and the jailing of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then mayor of Istanbul and a member of the Islamist party.
Turks, who have considerable experience with coups, call that one “postmodern” for its relative gentility. Parliament wasn’t dissolved, the constitution wasn’t suspended, there were no tanks in the streets, the army stayed in the background, and the renamed sons of the Welfare Party were allowed to run in the next elections. One of them, the Justice and Development Party, won in 2002 and remains the democratically elected government today.
The third and most disturbing possible outcome for Egypt is Algeria in 1992: a harsh crackdown on elected Islamists by the military, followed by a vicious civil war.
One reason to hope Egypt won’t follow that path is that Egypt’s military hasn’t yet been threatened. After the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the army had three red lines to protect. It needed a veto in high politics, such as the relationship with Israel, and immunity from prosecutions in civilian courts. It also required security for a commercial empire that features preferential customs and exchange rates; no taxation; land-confiscation rights (without paying the treasury); and a virtually cost-free labor force of conscript soldiers. This is a black hole in the formal economy that by some estimates accounts for 20 percent to 40 percent of Egyptian gross domestic product.
Mursi met all of these demands, either verbally or by writing them into the constitution. Earlier this year, army officers told me that this contract has held good. This is the opposite of how Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front approached cohabitation with the military.
In 1990, the front declared that once in power, it would hold Algeria’s generals to account for corruption in the oil industry. When the front won the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991, the generals seized control and canceled the second-round vote. In the civil war that followed, casualty estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000.
So far, Egypt’s coup matches none of the above. The generals and the Muslim Brotherhood have acted less aggressively than their 1990s counterparts in Algeria. At the same time, events have been less “postmodern” than in Turkey. Mursi didn’t obligingly step down when asked, and the military suspended the constitution. Troops were sent into the streets, leaders of the winning party were arrested, their homes were searched, and some pro-Mursi protesters were shot. It remains possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will be declared illegal.
Which scenario plays out, Algerian or Turkish, depends on what the two sides do next. In Algeria, full-fledged civil war didn’t begin until September 1992, nine months after the army annulled the elections. If al-Seesi and his junta behave like Khaled Nezzar, the Algerian defense minister who deposed Algeria’s reformist president in January 1992 and formed a military junta, violent confrontations are likely to follow.
There is another Turkish scenario: the 1980 coup of General Kenan Evren, who is currently on trial in Turkey for his actions, more than two decades later. As in Egypt today, Evren’s coup was genuinely popular among swaths of the Turkish population, but it quickly turned sour, producing a terrible constitution and widespread abuse of human rights. Evren’s intervention caused a 20-year setback for democratic progress in Turkey.
It was beyond imagining to see Tahrir Square, a place that in 2011 symbolized the struggle for Arab democracy and freedom, cheering the end of a democratic process and annulling the votes of millions of Egyptians last week. On July 3, 2013, Tahrir didn’t celebrate an expansion of liberty, but the exclusion of one part of the Egyptian people by another. The consequences are impossible for any of those involved to predict.