The Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi represents a major milestone in Egypt's bumpy and circular transition to democracy. Today, great hopes, high spirits and a sense of relief are prevalent among most Egyptians. The thrills of joy, however, overshadow the many perils ahead.
First, Morsi's downfall at the hands of the uprising-turned-coup demonstrates that the ballot box, the core of competitive political systems, has been outweighed in Egyptian politics by street dynamics. Indeed, the debate among contending parties now centers around questions like: Which party's protest was larger and which party proved that it could mobilize more supporters for street protests? If Egypt witnesses no quick return to the vehicles of democratic rule, then the street will remain the main (or only) locus of collective expression.
This development establishes a worrying precedent. By reducing a representative political process to mere displays of power that are often sham or deceptive, the fate of a large nation becomes hostage to the percentage of its population that takes to the streets, expressing its choices using marches, shouts and banners. In other words, the well-established democratic "one man, one vote" principle is substituted by the "only protestors count" formula. This takes Egypt one step away from constitutional democracy and one step closer to mob rule, hence alienating sizeable segments of the populace and undermining the legitimacy of the post-Morsi process. It also shifts the attention of political parties away from devising broad strategies and policy postures that address complex political questions to focusing on mobilization tactics, event-organization skills and rhetoric campaigns.
Second, the revival of Mubarak's authoritarian practices is looming on the horizon. The same revolutionary forces that led the uprising against Mubarak in 2011 played a crucial role in the Tamarod (Rebel) grassroots movement - which collected 22 million signatures demanding an early presidential election - and in the large anti-Morsi demonstrations that took place in the period from June 30 to July 3. Nevertheless, they did not stand alone this time. A broad motley coalition of Egyptians, which included revolutionaries, liberals, Mubarak sympathizers, businessmen with ties to state institutions and even security officers, protested against Morsi. Indeed, if Morsi had succeeded in anything over the past year, it was in uniting these heterogeneous groupings against his rule.
These diverse forces had little in common, except for their dissatisfaction at the performance of Morsi's government and impatience to see Morsi toppled from power. Now that their goal has been achieved, they will come to a parting of the ways. While the revolutionary forces will continue to defend liberties and advocate social justice, the security apparatus may be tempted to revert to its old ways of doing business. Indeed, immediately following Morsi's overthrow, dozens of pro-Morsi channels have been banned and many Islamist leaders have been arrested. Similarly, state bureaucrats and remnants of the Mubarak regime are geared up to retain their prerogatives and recapture lost lands.
Third, Morsi's removal from office will not put an end to the instability that has engulfed the country since Mubarak stepped down in 2011, but will rather prolong and expand it. A civil war is not around the corner, but civil unrest is overwhelming and paralyzing the country. What lies ahead is a protracted struggle between the state and the secularists on one hand and the Islamists on the other. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have so far been defiant to the military's move, announcing that they will not leave the streets before Morsi is reinstated. They have resorted to street protests (some of which spiraled into deadly violence) and, as usual, concealed their political motives behind the mask of religious rhetoric.
Whether they lost touch with reality or they only aim at bolstering their negotiating posture, the narrow-minded, hotheaded MBs are shooting themselves in the foot. Their outright stubbornness inhibits the reintegration of the MB into the system and invites a security crackdown that, this time, may be condoned or justified by many social forces.
Fourth, the military's return to domination, albeit from behind the curtain, represents another setback to ongoing attempts to reformulate civil-military relations in Egypt on a more balanced and consistent-with-democracy basis. Civilian control over the military and the institutionalization of politics seem today to be as distant as they have been since the 1952 coup.
Egyptians' jubilation at Morsi's ejection was well-deserved. Once again, they asserted their indispensible presence in the equations of politics and power. But the euphoria of the moment should not overshadow the challenges of tomorrow: the transition to democracy is in deep jeopardy, the military is back in the saddle, the forces of the ancien regime are plotting their return to power and turmoil continues to tear the country apart.
Nael M. Shama
* This article appeared first in Global Times (China) on July 25, 2013.
* Photo: Hassan Ammar (AP).