Egypt: What Just Happened?

On Saturday, Mohamed ElBaradei — a respected diplomat, Nobel peace laureate, and liberal opposition leader — was named prime minister of Egypt, a country he’d very recently described as “a failed state.” The move came days after the Egyptian military ousted the democratically-elected government of president Mohammad Morsi amid gigantic street protests.

And then, a short time later, ElBaradei was unnamed prime minster, after being vetoed by ultra-conservatives in the opposition coalition that is trying to create a new transitional government. The Nour Party, Egypt’s second-biggest Islamist force, threatened to withdraw its support for the military-backed July 3 overthrow if ElBaradei’s appointment went through, Reuters reported.

The turnabout was an early and troubling indication of the coming struggle for political and economic stability.

The toppling of Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, has made millions of Egyptians ecstatic, and infuriated millions of others.

Liberals and others say Egypt was in terrible need of a political reset, that Morsi, who was elected a year ago with 51.7 percent of the vote (after taking 24 percent in the primary), had made a hash of the economy and foreign affairs, while claiming dictatorial powers for himself.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was suppressed during the long reign of Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, say they were sabotaged by government institutions and a “deep state” still beholden to Mubarak’s regime, a group known as the felool. Morsi and other leaders of the brotherhood have been arrested and Islamist TV channels have been taken off the air.

“The world always thought we Islamists didn’t believe in democracy,” a pro-Morsi demonstrator named Hassan al-Sherbeny told Reuters. “Now Islamists are teaching Egyptians democracy while the liberals are giving up democracy. And where is the world’s reaction to that?”

A lot – I mean a lot – of people I know in Egypt insist this isn’t a coup, or that it’s a people’s coup. After all, they note, more people (20 million) were claimed to have signed a petition to remove Morsi than voted for him in the first place (13 million). The army, they say, has heeded the call of a fed-up populace. For the moment, the army’s abuse of many of these same people, during the overthrow of Mubarak and a 16-month period of military rule, is forgotten.

At least 40 people were killed in clashes around the country during the weekend, including peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators shot by the army, and residents of Cairo’s Manial neighborhood who were gunned down by enraged Islamists in the hours after the overthrow.

More protests are coming.

Writing for the International Herald Tribune, author Maria Golia gives us the setting for the youth-driven Tamarod (Rebel!) campaign that led to Morsi’s ouster.

Egypt was in the doldrums, politically paralyzed by the president’s disputes with the judiciary, economically sapped by the pall that Islamists cast on tourism and culturally beset by state attacks on the media and the puerile hate-mongering of TV sheikhs. The ruling Freedom and Justice Party seemed as hell-bent as the regime of Hosni Mubarak on dominating political life and keen also to control people’s private lives. Sectarian violence was mounting between Muslims and Christians, and even among Muslims. I’d never felt Egypt so at odds with itself in the many years I’ve lived here.

“Call this a coup if you like,” Golia writes. “To them, it’s a second revolution, another chance.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl pours cold water on the celebrations.

Applauders of military coups have in common two illusions: that the generals share their agenda and that their hated opponents, despite their electoral victories, can be politically nullified. Invariably, neither turns out to be true.

“The ultimate losers in this week’s coup,” Diehl predicts, “will be those who cheered it on.”

Here’s a 13-year-old Egyptian who would probably disagree.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.