Attempting to Turn the Clock Back

Following the military coup of July 3rd against Egypt’s first ever freely elected President, there are many arguments posited that try to justify the coup through a variety of assertions. These range from an assertion that such a huge (indeed, globally unprecedented) number demonstrated on 30th June, that normal democratic processes could be suspended, to an assertion that the first presidential year was such a disaster that the military had no choice other than to remove the elected government to protect the country. Equally, there are confidently made predictions for a quick return to democracy based on further assertions of how the various parties (including the military) will behave, with little reference to precedence or facts.

As a starting point, I suggest we differentiate between the known facts and assertions based on conjecture. We know as a fact that that the Freedom and Justice Party won a majority of the votes in parliamentary elections in 2011, that Morsi won presidential elections in the middle of the following year in 2012 and that his government won a deeply contested constitutional ballot, six months later at the end of 2012, albeit on a low turnout.

The 2012 constitutional referendum (where the data is only about six months old) also tells us a lot. Despite a massive 'no' campaign, the majority did not feel compelled enough by dissatisfaction with the government to participate-hence the low turnout, and where they did the vast majority voted with the government. Moreover, only three districts out of 27 voted no, but the strongest 'no' vote (56.8%) was Cairo. That tells us there is a large divide between Cairo and the rest of the country, and Cairo was the epicenter of the 30th June demonstrations.

One of the main arguments employed by the opposition is that the ballot box is not the optimal way to determine governments (ballotocracy). However, the electoral process forms the most reliable basis of assessing the public will, and in the case of Egypt, public will clearly did not reflect the opposition's view. We also know as a fact that the Mubarak era appointed judiciary went out of its way to delay fresh elections for a new parliament to replace the one annulled under SCAF as recently as last April, some three months ago.

Given the above we can make a reasonable conjecture that the opposition, even in late Spring were not confident that they could defeat the FJP in a straight democratic ballot. That is why the opposition has laid so much emphasis on its popular support expressed through the demonstrations of June 30. However, we do not know for a fact the actual numbers involved and statisticians are already casting doubt on even the moderate numbers quoted by the military and the opposition.

Other evidence seems to support a suspicion that this was a well choreographed coup by an alliance of Mubarak era interests, the deep state and the military riding on the back of a naive liberal opposition. There is evidence, from Suwairis himself, the well known billionaire, that he financed Tamarod, aided and directed by the security apparatus and with eventual buy in from the military.

We do know for a fact that Mubarak era figures whether in the judiciary or other institutions of the state are reasserting their power. We also know for a fact that Egypt by world standards is highly corrupt (it ranks 117 out of 174 on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index). Given this level of corruption, we can conjecture that entrenched Mubarak era interests would fight very hard to protect their very substantial financial interests.

In contrast, we cannot tell whether the Morsi government was incompetent or not, as widely asserted by many pundits. In the realm of foreign policy, it seems to have been reasonably successful, given the very short term, in re-establishing a position for a very marginalized Egypt regionally. In terms of economic reform, it proceeded slowly and when it started to advocate more reform particularly in relation to big business and their tax obligations, the resources at the disposal of the opposition seem to have increased. Within the deep state, the military, the judiciary and the security apparatus, the government seemed to have been blocked at every turn, leading to economic and reform gridlock. As a result we shall never know whether it was a competent government or not.

Finally, we know for a fact that since June 30 the military and their allies are trying to break the operational structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, through the intimidation of their leaders, arrests , closure of their media outlets and the freezing of financial assets.

Given the above we can build a plausible scenario for the future direction of Egyptian politics :

The opposition would not chance a free national election unless it can exclude the Muslim Brotherhood or until it has substantially weakened its organizational structure, because they cannot be assured of the outcome. For the sake of international legitimacy they would probably lean towards seeing a parliament where there is a nominal representation from the FJP, maybe something akin to the parliament in 2005 when Mubarak sought to get some international legitimacy.

Given what we know through the ballot results as recently as December 2012 and the pew survey released in May 2013 giving Morsi a 53% approval rating, this action would imply disenfranchising a large proportion of the electorate, especially outside Cairo. Some Egyptians intellectuals and politicians in the opposition have openly derided the votes of the ‘illiterate’ as an inconvenience. This only adds to the even greater disillusionment among the majority with the idea of a democratic process.

We can also reasonably assume that those who supported the coup are far from revolutionary elements; they are a a wide grouping ranging from the thugs who even in Tahrir in 30th June were assaulting female protestors, to powerful elements in the judiciary, to the security services, all of whom are antagonistic to the very ideals of January 25,2011 revolution.

We can further conjecture that the attempts during 2012 to tax oligarchs (announced in a Morsi speech on October 6, 2012) are unlikely to be resuscitated. Furthermore, it would be reasonable to assume that given comments by Suwaris recently that he intends to invest heavily in Egypt, that the corrupt practice of giving state assets at deeply discounted prices to oligarchs from which they made their fortunes through super-profits and which they knew was threatened would be resumed. This system is not dissimilar to that what existed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, we can further assume that the massive economic empire controlled by the military would continue to be immune from any civilian oversight.

Of course, the Military would need to make some concessions towards the liberal camp but that is likely to be in areas that do not threaten it’s fundamental financial and political interests. If the liberal or leftist camps seriously oppose the military backed political roadmap, we know from the experience of the military response to protesters at the Maspero massacre in 2011 and the Republican Guard Club massacre a few days ago (where an investigative report by Patrick Kingsley in the the Guardian, July 18, 2013 revealed an unprovoked attack on people in prayer) that the response to any serious dissent is uncompromising.

Finally, the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and the silencing of all criticism (an example of the '1984' type propaganda was the recent publication on a front page of a national paper of pictures of journalists and academics who oppose the coup under a banner "Agents of the Brotherhood") implies a future in which all political expression will once again be tightly controlled by entrenched interests and free expression severely curtailed .

The sum of all of the above will in turn lead to a binary outcome for the current crisis. One outcome is that the majority of the population acquiesces and Egypt develops a severely restricted democratic system that elects the elite and defends their interests, rather like the Mubarak era, with a smattering of additional personal freedoms, which would probably satisfy those who called June 30 'the triumph of liberty over the mechanics of democracy'. The other outcome is that such an acquiescence is short lived, as the political and business elite including the backbone of the NDP who support them reassert their power with little change to the lives of ordinary citizens. The stark gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ reaffirms itself, with the elite unapologetically asserting its political and economic dominance to a degree where pressure for a revolution in the classic sense builds up and creates long term instability.

Any government concerned with instigating a program of reform within the framework of a democratic system will have to ensure the rule of law and the accountability of state institutions and personnel. However, it is hard to imagine how reform is meant to happen today with the unabashed return of corrupt interests of the business class, a judiciary that is supportive overall of the military, a repressive security apparatus and the return of powerful interests from the NDP (the old ruling party).That is why the derailing of the democratic process and the attack on the MB, the most effective counterweight to the Mubarak era interests, is such a setback to the prospect of moving on from sixty years of dictatorship.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.