What a difference a democratic election makes. Only 29 months ago, Egyptians were united in celebrating the removal of Mubarak's 30-year rule and the triumph of what seemed a glorious revolution that had inspired many around the world. This week, the Egyptian people, back on the streets in their many millions, were deeply divided almost down the middle over the question of legitimacy.
Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, stated in his last official speech that he would defend 'legitimacy' with his life. To his supporters and most neutral observers, he clearly meant defending the civil democratic elections, reflecting the will of the people in the face of an overriding military intervention. Without this the entire process would be defunct. To his opponents, it was a thinly-veiled threat and ultimatum threatening civil conflict, for which he lost all claim to his privileges to office.
When Morsi won elections last year, he took over a ramshackle of a country in deep crisis on virtually every single level. Corruption, mismanagement, the overbearing and disproportionate role of the military, a questionable judiciary, record levels of illiteracy, poverty, human rights abuses, limited civil freedoms and countless problems on its borders with Gaza, Israel, Sudan and Libya - all these and more were problems confronting the country. In fact Egypt had become almost entirely dependent on crippling IMF loans as well as a sizeable annual aid package from the US, without which it would become bankrupt. The powerful and corrupt elite, who were drawn from the top military ranks, as well as businessmen and family and friends of the former political circles (an ever-declining middle class accounted for no more than five percent of the Egyptian populace), were living a life of luxury and affluence which the other 95 percent could never imagine let alone attain.
The problems Morsi faced from the outset were immense to say the least. Any reasonable assessment would afford only an average chance of success in tackling some of these issues over a single term. Yet the problems of a post-revolutionary Egypt were what arguably obstructed his ability to carry out his policies and brought his presidency to an abrupt end.
With aspirations understandably, albeit unreasonably and often stiflingly, sky high, Morsi was flanked by the two wings of the old state - the military and the judiciary - both of whom made every effort to obstruct and annul almost every single one of his decisions. Along with a private and extremely powerful media financed by a handful of business tycoons still loyal to the old regime, virtually every move Morsi made was publicly and brutally vilified. He simply could not win. Admittedly, there were controversial decisions, including his constitutional declaration (of power residing in the Presidency) and its subsequent scrapping; the removal of the public prosecutor; and the process of writing the constitution. In his explanation, the revolution could not have delivered on its objectives without these steps. With everything that was working against him, the explanation was moot.
However, the discussion about the year in which Morsi presided over Egypt, wasn't about policies at all. Indeed, even some of his detractors admit to surprisingly positive gains on many issues, considering the short space of time and impeding circumstances. The constitution, backed by a public referendum, was heralded by numerous international legal experts as progressive. Even on the popularity front, a Pew survey conducted late last year, found that Morsi enjoyed greater public approval than when he won the elections back in June.
The problem was that Morsi represented the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), a source of great suspicion domestically by those who identify as secular, as well as internationally. A term which very quickly entered Egyptian life and managed to become part of the local lingo, was the 'Ikhwan-ization of the state', i.e. the taking over of the country by the Muslim Brotherhood. Whilst this proved to be wildly untrue by virtue of how most layers of the Establishment easily turned against Morsi and the MB at their hour of need, its impact on the public mood was devastating.
The international community, whilst welcoming the advent of free and fair elections, held its tongue on welcoming the outcome. President Obama openly declared that Egypt - a long-time ally of the US during the Mubarak reign - was 'neither a friend nor a foe of the US'. The Europeans, admittedly more accommodating of the new government, were also reluctant and far happier to be seen in the company of the opposition figures.
Ultimately, for many who claim to be progressive and revolutionary, their suspicion, indeed often bare and raw hatred of Morsi and his ideological roots, outweighed their keenness on seeing through the revolution and bearing with the outcome of a new democratic process. In several discussions with Egyptian academics, professionals and activists, I found the mere suggestion of seeing through the remaining three years of Morsi's term and then bringing him down at the ballot box (by virtue of his claimed failure), unacceptable and beyond consideration.
The spectacle of millions of Egyptians celebrating what was to all intents and purposes a military coup, is extremely hard to understand or to stomach. As these words are being written, millions of Morsi supporters are still on the streets calling for the restoration of legitimacy, while Morsi is being held at an undisclosed location under military guard and several leading members of the MB are in Tora prison (where former president Mubarak is being held). Dozens of TV channels have been shut down including Aljazeera; several protesters have been killed under the military's watch; and the scene reads ominously like a page from the bygone era.
Already, questions are circulating about whether democracy and democratic values are a reality or a myth, and whether Islamic political parties would ever be allowed to enjoy their freely and fairly achieved democratic victories. Those asking the question worryingly cite parallels with Algeria circa 1991.
The next few weeks and months will be crucial in deciding whether the Egyptian revolution against tyranny and corruption is still on, or whether it has taken a course towards an adjustment of sorts and a slight shift, rather than a radical and far-reaching transition of system and society.
The jubilant crowds may yet come to regret toppling the MB-led government, especially if the Salafist parties who turned against Morsi, capitalise on their significant popularity at the next elections, whenever that may occur.Suggest a correction