The Middle East Channel

Not quite a coup, but pretty much

As I sat down for my interview with the journalist to discuss the protests of June 30, I told him, "You realize by the time we're done, half of this is probably going to be irrelevant and outdated, right?" It turns out I was right -- because within those few minutes, the Egyptian Defense Minister, General el-Sissi issued an ultimatum. The official text was quite clear: it was a message for all parties in Egypt to address their differences, and respond to the "will of the people" within 48 hours. Within a few minutes, I received a message from a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- and it was a fairly short one. "We have a coup." Not quite -- but he may yet turn out to be right.

Jokingly, some are referring to Egypt as the only country where a coup is announced in advance. The real joke, however, rests with anyone thought that the armed forces had ever been neutralized by the Muslim Brotherhood last August. Within Western capitals, and among a great portion of Egypt's intelligentsia, it was thought that the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi had managed to push Field Marshal Tantawi out of the driver's seat, and appointed a "loyal" General Sissi as defense minister. Suspicion of Sissi's affiliations ran so deep that many thought that he was a "secret Muslim Brother," interpreting reports of his religious conservatism as a sign of his Islamism. Many within Morsi's own camp were deeply impressed with the president's ability to "sweep aside" the military. 

In reality, they were all wrong. The Egyptian military is not, and never has been, an ideological institution. Its main concerns have been to maintain its independence vis-à-vis the rest of the state, and to ensure the stability of Egypt -- without which it would be forced to involve itself in the mess of governing tens of millions of Egyptians. That is what was behind its move to depose Hosni Mubarak in 2011, whose continued presence was perceived as a liability in maintaining stability. It is also what was behind its self-reconstitution in 2012, retiring Tantawi and taking itself out of governing Egypt. Today, it continues in the same pattern. The military was fervently hoping that President Morsi would prove up to the challenge of governing Egypt, precisely so that it would not have to deal with any mess arising from his failure. The statement today can be summed up, perhaps a bit unkindly, as: "We've chosen no-one's side but our own in this mess, and we're rather annoyed that you (the political elite) could not sort out things on your own."

That much is clear. What remains unclear, however, is legion. Why, for example, is the coup "on hold"? How will the Muslim Brotherhood react? What can Morsi do now? What steps will the opposition take next?

The military is very reluctant to take any action where it is likely to simply experience a replay of the last two and a half years. Hence, the military's statement ought not to be taken as a representation of its power -- that power should never have been in doubt -- but as a sign that its original road-map failed abysmally. When Tantawi took over from Mubarak, his task was to set in motion a transition that kept the military's status, position, and beneficial arrangement intact. July 1st marks the end of that transition -- and the beginning of another, because that transition failed.

Almost three years on, the military has to re-involve itself in Egyptian politics. In all likelihood, the delay is designed to allow the military to explore a range of options with the Muslim Brotherhood and different political forces. An outright coup is not a successful outcome for the military. On the contrary, it is a risky scenario, and the military wants to minimize any risks going forward.

Those risks have everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood's reaction. Predictably, the major Salafi political party (Hizb al-Nour) stayed out of the political fray, and has now come out in support of the military's call for the "demands of the people" to be reckoned with. However, that leaves a sizeable proportion of the population -- probably around 15-20 percent -- who still back Morsi. Today, Morsi's support base largely consists of uncompromising members of the Muslim Brotherhood viewing any military intervention as an attempt to restore the Mubarak-era repression of the Brotherhood -- or worse. A repeat of Algeria is not likely, however, as the country is not nearly as split. But violence from members of a group who feel under pressure, and support from their small but steadfast allies, is not beyond the realm of possibility.

The military's best case scenario is where Morsi remains President Morsi, thereby placating any violent Islamist backlash, but is forced to make a series of concessions that defuses the situation on the street. Last week, those concessions could have been relatively simple; but the more time elapses, the more impressive those concessions will have to be. Earlier this week, Morsi could have declared early elections, remaining in office until they took place -- but now he may have to announce a cabinet that essentially renders him a lame duck president. Although this might be his best option, there is no guarantee the protesters on the street will even accept that option now.

Those protesters are the source of energy in this saga -- but they are also the element that can be used and abused. By and large, they are not led by, nor do they feel loyalty to, the scattered leadership of the opposition, which makes them more difficult to negotiate with.

That leadership, however, may still impact the events of the coming days. If the military does fulfil its coded threat of a coup, then it will require civilian political cover. The leaders of the organized political opposition have made little secret over the last few days, and even weeks, of their willingness to engage with the military to apply pressure upon the presidency. They may now find their chance.  

There is one last element that most have overlooked -- the original revolutionaries of 2011. The revolutionary camp that struggled against Mubarak in 2011, the military in 2012, and Morsi in 2013, still exist within Egypt's nascent civil society. Despite participating in the anti-Morsi protests, political activists, civil society organizers, human rights campaigners, and journalists have found themselves disenchanted with the ultimatum, fearing a return to military rule. These revolutionaries appear determined that their revolution of the January 25, 2011, continues, regardless of who sits in the presidency.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

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