Egypt Post Morsi: Why There Is No Reason to Hope for a Real Democratic Transition

07/26/2013 09:19 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2013

In the deluge of interpretations that have surrounded the ousting of President Morsi, some are semantic: "Is it a coup?" Others are irrelevant: "Does it show, yet again, that Islam is not compatible with democracy?" The most significant for the political future of Egypt assert that the end of the regime portends the end of Islamism, and that the military has returned to power. But a closer look at the political and social evolution of both Islamism and the army before and after the revolution actually shows that neither statement holds on solid ground.

This is not the end of Islamism. The defeat of this multifaceted movement has been prophesized for at least the last two decades -- Olivier Roy, for example, wrote The Failure of Political Islam in 1999. To assume its end in the current Egyptian context is to limit Islamism to the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), which was not even created until after the 2011 revolution. Islamism is first and foremost a social movement. In the last four decades, Egyptian society has been the major field of action of the Muslim Brothers as they built networks, associations, and social programs. In this regard, its perspective has always been larger and more inclusive than factional politics. And it is probably why, when the party was created, a lot of the younger people within the movement were adamant to not put all their resources into the party. As they rightly assumed, a social movement often looses its holistic approach once it enters electoral competition. That is exactly what happened with the FJP. Additionally, most of the senior leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) lack the skills for governance because running a social movement is very different from professional politics.

Obviously Morsi thought that the identity politics that worked so well at the grassroots level would be sufficient to run the Egyptian state. This was one of his numerous mistakes. His governance dramatically highlighted the growing gap between the leadership of senior MB officials and the values of the vast majority of the young urbanized population. Not only he did not address the claims for social justice and equality of the Tahrir protesters, but he did not even talk their language. The FJP maintained the hierarchical and secretive culture that suited an underground movement but was deemed undemocratic in the post-2011 revolutionary context. For this reason, the failure of the FJP will oblige a rethinking of the MB strategy, leadership, and communication if it wants to keep in touch with the Facebook generation.

In the same vein, it is important to understand that Morsi lost his popularity because of his incapacity to provide economic and social solutions that would have assuaged the demands that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in the first place. The popular protests against Morsi last June were not an attack on his Islamic politics but on his failure to efficiently provide better social and economic conditions. Even worse, during his short reign, conditions deteriorated dramatically. That is why the argument of the small secular elite -- often echoed in Washington political circles -- that the reactions against the Morsi government were primarily caused by the islamization of the state, is simply not confirmed by the facts. When it comes to the role of Islam in politics, the 2012 constitution is not a spectacular departure from the 1971 constitution of the "secular ancient regime". The much-debated Article 2 on the role of the Sharia principles in politics is phrased in the same terms as the 1971 document. The two major novelties of the 2012 constitution that could have led to more influence for Islam in politics were Article 4 granting Al Azhar University the capacity to control the Sharia compliance of draft legislation, and Article 44 making blasphemy against all prophets an unconstitutional act.

Interestingly, the declaration issued July 9 to replace the suspended constitution indirectly confirms that Islam is not the major reason of the ousting of Morsi. Article 2 of the new document has been merged with Article 1 (about principles of democracy and citizenship) but the content about Sharia remains. The restriction of freedom of religious worship to Christianity, Islam and Judaism is also maintained, though Al-Azhar's role in new legislation has been dropped.

The real reason for the ousting of Morsi is that the army has been in charge all along, playing the role of tutelary authority over the political experiment that was the FJP government. It is helpful to recall that the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square did not on their own bring down Mubarak. It is only because the army abandoned the president that the Mubarak regime could collapse. Additionally, the army only accepted the FJP government once they had insurance that it would not interfere with the security and foreign policy of the country, which remain the army prerogatives. It has even been argued that the military entered a phase of passive resistance against the Morsi regime that contributed to the paralysis of major state institutions. As Freedom House's Nancy Okail wrote earlier this year: "although Mubarak was toppled, the institutional structure of his regime is still very much in place, with the same mentality, organizational culture, and approach to silencing dissent, including through crackdowns on civil society." Intriguingly, the frequent power blackouts that plagued Egyptians' life in the last months of the Morsi regime "miraculously" stopped after June 30.

What pushed the military back to the political forefront was the rise of social and political frustrations and the subsequent increase of social unrest. And like in 2011, the army is calling the shots. The claim of the June 30 protesters that they are in charge is naïve. The reality is that the army is currently using the protests against Morsi to their benefit as they did in 2011 with the protests against Mubarak. It does not mean that they want to be in the political spotlight, far from it. As any praetorian regime, the army's preference is to lead from the backseat but to lead nevertheless.

The only way out of this praetorian regime would be the creation of an emergency government of national unity in which all political protagonists would agree to partake. No real transition to democracy can happen as long as the key players -- from the military to the Islamists -- see the current politics as a zero sum game.