Coup by Acclamation?

Call it people power. Call it a coup. Call it a coup by acclamation.

But what has just taken place in Egypt doesn’t really fit any existing language or political template. The array of forces that stood around Army Chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the podium when he announced the ouster of the government of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi was extraordinary. Al-Sisi personally represented not only the military, but, implicitly, the police, the Interior Ministry, the security forces, and much of the government apparatus. Around him were gathered, in agreement, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the spokesman for the main opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) coalition, among many others.

Between the unparalleled demonstrations that began on Sunday, and the breadth and depth of Egyptian consensus on that stage on Wednesday evening, there could be no question. The entirety of organized, politically and socially active Egyptian society—of course excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and its immediate allies—have united in supporting the Army removing the government. If this goes badly, the blame cannot fall on the Armed Forces alone, for they have not acted alone. They have responded to an extraordinary outpouring of mass and popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment, and marshaled a huge coalition in support of their decision to end the current presidency and impose a new transitional order.

By agreeing to the military’s “framework” for transition, most of the other major national forces, particularly the non-Islamist ones, have been essentially made parties to the “implementation of the will of the people,” or the “coup,” or whatever one might care to call it. For it is both of those things, and neither.

In some ways it resembles the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. But Morsi was elected under the law. On the other hand, the essence of the failure of the Morsi government—an utter unwillingness or inability to compromise, conciliate, cooperate or come to terms—was actually exemplified in the extraordinary national unity that surrounded the rejection of his continuation in office.

First we saw a petition that drew over 25 million signatures calling for new elections. The former president dismissed this out of hand. Then the untold millions (the real number will never be known), from all walks of life and all Egyptian descriptions, poured out onto the street since Sunday calling for his resignation.

Even then, Morsi might have saved the day for himself. The turning point was probably his angry, belligerent, aggressive and paranoid rant to the nation on June 26. For more than 2 and a half hours, he bellowed and cooed, barked and berated, scolded and cajoled. His message was simple: “We are the revolutionaries. I am their leader. No one dare challenge me. Obey my authority.”

Inevitably, it alienated the entire country. And it reminded them that he had no policy answers to the problems that plague daily life for most Egyptians. And yet even when al-Sisi issued his 48 hour ultimatum, Morsi still had a chance. True enough, the whole point of the 48 hours was to tell the demonstrators all they had to do was hang in there for two days. But had the President called in the opposition, created a national unity government, announced new elections, or offered anything really  substantive that smacked of change, he might
well have survived.

Instead, he reacted furiously. His speech on Tuesday was a veritable tirade against everyone who is not an immediate supporter. He blamed the demonstrations on counterrevolutionaries, traitors, agents of foreign powers, scofflaws and hooligans. It was an expression of the most profound contempt for the ordinary people of the country and showed how out of touch he was, and the extent to which his loss of legitimacy was irrevocable.

Meanwhile, al-Sisi did exactly what Morsi should have done, but either could or would not. If there was ever any question about who was the better politician as an individual, or a more savvy institution, it’s been completely resolved now. He and his military colleagues held a set of intensive and serious consultations with representatives of the mainstream opposition coalition, the NSF, representatives of religious and other important social forces, Islamist groups outside the Muslim Brotherhood, and, indeed, almost the whole spectrum of organized Egyptian social and political life.

The consequence was, ultimately, the development of a consensus regarding the basic elements of what al-Sisi announced, and what was endorsed by the other key figures at the podium, Wednesday night. The Constitution is suspended temporarily, and a committee will be formed to amend key provisions in the new Constitution that are generally regarded as unacceptable. The Constitution was rammed through by Morsi and his Islamist allies after a red herring “constitutional declaration,” in which he assigned himself virtually monarchical powers. He rescinded the declaration only to mollify public anger about the terrible new Constitution that was immediately rammed through an Islamist-stacked committee. That mockery reiterates almost everything that was objectionable about the old constitutions, and adds a layer of potentially very oppressive “Islamic” legislation.

The issue of the Constitution is the most important one by far. Without serious revision, the Constitution that was forced through by the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist allies is a death sentence to any hope for a tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and open-minded Egyptian political system. On the contrary, it opens the door to an endless stream of abusive, pandering majoritarian oppression of unpopular individuals, disfavored or despised minorities, and subjugated women.

The functions of the presidency will now be assumed by the Chief Justice of the High Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour. He will be sworn in to this function on Thursday. New presidential elections will be held “at the earliest possible date,” followed by parliamentary elections. In the meantime, a government of “technocrats” will be formed, very possibly headed by ElBaradei. One of the less encouraging announcements was that of a “media code of ethics” to guarantee “professionalism,” which can hardly result in anything other than censorship. Hopefully the kind of suppression of free speech through quasi-legal means that was employed in such a reckless way under Morsi whose government brought more prosecutions for insulting the presidency in his one year in office than Mubarak’s did in his more than 30—will be prevented by the military’s coalition partners.

There will also be a commission for national reconciliation, whatever that means. But Egyptian society, political forces and leading personalities are going to have to try to learn the principle of national unity from their own public. The Egyptian people came together across many different lines of division to reject an arbitrary   government that had gone too far and was abusing its authority and dragging the nation into the abyss. But it is crucial to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away. It is not a spent force. It is not an irrelevancy. It is a major national institution with a huge constituency. Indeed, after the army, it is probably the single largest and most effective national organization in all of Egypt.

Therefore, any impulse to institutionalize the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood will be a catastrophe. The lessons from the Algerian experience must hang heavy in the air. The Brotherhood left no choice for the whole rest of society, united, to reject their governance. But, if they stay within the law and eschew major outpourings of violence, they should not be persecuted or prosecuted. If they turn to violence, as some of their rhetoric suggests they might, this will be a calamity. It will lead to civil war, at least of a kind. They will lose, but it will be a generalized catastrophe.

If, on the other hand, non-Islamist forces who have now seized power by popular acclimation seek to systematically exclude the Brothers even if they continue to try to play by the new rules, they will be courting disaster. They must allow the Brotherhood to run in upcoming elections, and hope that they will learn their lesson and behave in a more reasonable, normative and inclusive manner if elected. If not, they will be rejected again. Democracies, from the outset, have always had to incorporate and accommodate non-democratic and authoritarian-minded forces (which the Brotherhood most certainly is) in spite of their hostility to the pluralistic order in which they participate. It is one of the great hazards of a free, open and democratic system: to be true to itself, it must generously afford oppressive groups more liberty than such groups would allow anyone else.

Yet there is a serious danger that the Egyptian Islamists may turn to violence. They may kid themselves, as other Arab Islamists have in the past, that “we’ve tried democracy, and it doesn’t work.” Since we want power, we have to try the more direct route again: violence. Morsi himself has articulated precisely this kind of mentality in his recent speeches, particularly on the evening before he was overthrown. All of his repeated pledges to sacrifice his own blood and body in the cause of “legitimacy” were just so much red meat for anyone in the Brotherhood who wants to instigate violence. But many of the Brotherhood leaders have been placed on an indefinite travel ban. The point is not to stop them from enjoying the fine weather in Fiji at this time of year. The message is simple: if you or any of your supporters, or anyone linked to you, starts blowing things up or shooting people on the streets, you can and will be arrested and held responsible.

A degree of violence now is virtually inevitable. Indeed, it’s been going on for quite some time. And it may intensify. But as long as it is contained, then the prospects for a productive, constructive transition remain viable. The danger is that some Brothers or others might feel that such a huge injustice has been done to “legitimacy,” and their simple majoritarianist misunderstanding of “democracy,” that only an armed response is sufficient. Some of Morsi’s supporters are openly speaking in terms of “civil war” and pledging to “sacrifice their lives in this situation.”

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has done enormous damage to itself already through its mismanagement of government and politics. If it wants to make matters worse, it can exploit these young people and destroy its reputation, at least in Egypt, forever. And the fate of the Brotherhood in Egypt will have tremendous implications for the fortunes of similar Islamists throughout the Arab world.

Whether in the United States or the rest of the West, or in the Arab or Islamic worlds, the idea that the Arabs and the Muslims are basically Islamists, or easily won over by anyone who grabs the Quran and clutches it to their chest while screaming “follow me to salvation,” must surely now be finally debunked. Most Arabs are faithful Muslims, but they are not Islamists. They do not welcome the Muslim Brothers’ authoritarianism, oppression and heavy handedness, and they will not put up with it. That’s a lesson not only for Islamists throughout the Middle East. It’s a lesson for policymakers in Washington, and around the world as well.