Even amid the chaos on the streets of Egypt’s major cities, a takeover by the country’s military would be incongruous, no matter how temporary. The armed forces, the traditional instrument of control in Middle Eastern autocracies, would be intervening to preserve an embryonic but increasingly dysfunctional pluralist system – despite the military command’s strong preference to avoid participation in the country’s political life.
The responsibilities forced on the army could dwarf the challenge it met with the removal of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, because the economic and social system has deteriorated markedly since then. The country’s political situation has become extremely complex, and the military’s ability to ensure a fair-minded pluralist system would be in doubt after a second takeover, despite its best intentions. Despite this aversion to direct governance, a new autocracy might ultimately be reimposed under that same military leadership; such is the fragmentation, dissension and exclusivism that dominate the Egyptian polity.
A military takeover could assure relative stability, at least in the short run, because the army is the only institution of state that carries near universal moral weight among Egyptians. It is the only institution that has the ability to act decisively with the confidence to follow through. But while the military might bring some respite to the endless politicking and instability, it will face many of the same problems President Mohammed Morsi has. It cannot easily suppress the ideological forces unleashed when Mr. Mubarak fell.
At least two Egyptian societies live uneasily side by side: one based on the conviction that a single belief system’s strictures must dominate the mores of the community as a whole, contraposed by a more progressive vision that prizes individual choice and respect for the other. Mr. Morsi has tried to ride these seemingly incompatible horses at the same time. His success has been mixed, not because he has abandoned his ideological beliefs but because he has recognized that successful governance requires the language, if not always the reality, of relative tolerance.
In this, he has failed. The sheer size of the Tahrir Square demonstrations alone underscores the extent of the public alienation. For Mr. Morsi and his colleagues, governance has been a learning experience at a time when Egypt cannot absorb the cost of experimentation. The economic crisis persists. Tourism, Egypt’s major foreign-exchange earner, has evaporated. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund have been unsuccessful, because the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has not understood the hard realities of the world financial system. To cope, the regime is rethinking market control mechanisms on essentials, generating concern among the millions who depend on subsidies.
Despite real effort, the Brotherhood has not been able to cope with the need for systemic change. Mr. Morsi has not made progress in reforming a largely indolent and corrupt bureaucracy (although this should hardly be surprising, given how deeply these traits permeate Egyptian culture). He has failed to reach out sufficiently to the opposition. He has failed to develop any convincing formula in regards to the role of religion in public life. He is a neophyte and this should have been anticipated, but it has estranged many.
The opposition, encouraged by Mr. Morsi’s misjudgments, smells blood. They fear his policies and intent mean continuing instability threatening their interests, communities and rights. The appointment of Brothers as heads to many of Egypt’s governorates (including Adel Asaad el-Khayat, a former member of the organization responsible for the massacre of 62 tourists at Luxor in 1997) was particularly chilling.
In May, the opposition grouped itself under yet another umbrella group, the so-called Tamarod movement. It has since seen its support mushroom based on its call for the President to resign. The extent of Tamarod’s depth is uncertain; it lacks organizational strength, although not spontaneity. The 22 million signatures it claims to have gathered calling for Mr. Morsi to leave office may well be exaggerated, although the actual number does appear significant.
Tamarod claims responsibility for getting millions into the streets. A military source told Reuters that 14 million people have joined the demonstrations. Six ministers in the Morsi cabinet have resigned in sympathy. As a coalition, Tamarod’s members have diverse and potentially conflicting goals. Coalescing the Christian Coptic community, traditional secularists, the new progressives, the remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s old regime and even dissident Salafists will be an insurmountable task.
The opposition wants democratic pluralism, debate and decision-making but, it could be argued, is anti-democratic in its approach, since Mr. Morsi is the duly elected President of the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, still the best organized and most popular political entity, will see an imperial American hand in any military takeover. Tamarod groups will struggle among themselves if the Brotherhood regime falls, but military government could be the least bad option, at least in the short term, given Egyptians’ overriding preoccupation with stability.
Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. He is the Paul Martin (Sr.) Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor.