Egypt's Coup: Is it Déjà vu All Over Again?

07/04/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Sep 03, 2013

Will the scenes of tens of thousands celebrating in Tahrir Square today prove a pyrrhic victory for Egypt's experiment with democracy? What are the lessons that must be learned in moving forward?

More than two years after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians are celebrating a military coup to reclaim the aspirations and hopes of the Arab Spring. The head of Egypt's Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, read a declaration removing Egypt's first democratically elected president. In a televised broadcast, flanked by military leaders, religious authorities and political figures, Sisi appointed President Morsi's most persistent judicial foe and a Mubarak appointed head of the supreme constitutional court as interim head of state, suspended the constitution, shut down television stations after delivering his speech to the Egyptian public, and arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

The "ouster" (read "overthrow") by military "intervention" (read "coup") demonstrates the extent to which so many Egyptians of all political and religious orientations have been infected by Mubarak's legacy, the political culture and values of authoritarianism. In the end, all the major actors succumbed: Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists alike), disenchanted April 6 youth, hardline illiberal secularists (or more accurately "secular fundamentalists"), failed presidential wannabes and other sore losers, and especially the remnants of the Mubarak regime and its deep state. A U.S. administration seemingly bent on leading from behind (often seen as a "guess my real policy?" approach) will earn few points. It has alienated both the Brotherhood and its opposition, with each believing the U.S. favored and worked with the other side.

The Brotherhood, for decades living siege and faced with repression, learned to survive and prove the only significant opposition during the Mubarak years. But the very methods and skills that enabled survival and the building of a tight knit, disciplined organization capable of organizing and mobilizing in elections, did not prepare the Morsi government for governance, for building a representative coalition in the very complex political and economic climate post Tahrir square. The risk and gamble of transitioning to a representative government, in a post revolutionary Egypt where so many institutions and agencies remained part of the Mubarak legacy belied the necessity in building a democracy for all sides to accept the notion of a "loyal opposition." In the end, despite accomplishments, the Morsi government and the Brotherhood proved unable to move quickly and effectively to garner sufficient popular support which enabled hardline anti-government factions, bent on bringing it down, to mobilize diverse sectors of society with legitimate concerns and grievances.

But what do we know of the successful opposition and its platform and agenda?

Beyond their unity of purpose, to bring down the Morsi government, the opposition has had no clear leader, no agreed upon platform of specific reforms. Its diverse and ideologically contradictory makeup offers no sense of the future direction of Egypt. Leaders and participants include Mubarak holdovers from the military and judiciary to police, security, bureaucracy (who are the real survivors and winners), as well as former major presidential candidates like Amr Musa; an array of Egypt's illiberal (non-democratic) secularists; disaffected April Spring youth, that cut across the political and religious spectrum, who felt that they and their concerns were excluded from the government; religious leaders, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and himself a former member of the Mubarak-led National Democratic Party as well the heads of the Salafist Nour Party and the Coptic church are curious bedfellows or allies.

Where will this go from here?

Egypt's most senior general led a military coup and Mohamed ElBaradei, a failed candidate for the presidency and a "liberal" opposition leader declared to cheering crowds that it had relaunched the 2011 revolution. The military with support from opposition leaders has announced a road map that includes presidential and parliamentary elections (with no dates announced), a panel to review the constitution and a national reconciliation committee that would include youth movements.

Their first order of business is to demonstrate that this is NOT a military coup and restoration of the old order. The cheering crowds in Tahrir Square should not obscure that Egypt is a deeply divided country and in serious political turmoil. While more often than not TV cameras have focused on huge opposition crowds, they have not shown the huge counter demonstrations of disaffected Morsi supporters. The military and its supporters face a major hurdle and avoid widespread crackdowns, arrests and imprisonment of former members of a democratically elected government.

Egypt's new leadership, and it is not yet clear who that really will be, faces a daunting challenge. It must move quickly to form a national reconciliation committee and panel to review the constitution that is truly inclusive. This means the inclusion of independent experts as well as democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice members who have many disaffected supporters.

Dates for promised presidential and parliamentary elections must be set sooner rather than later. The military in particular will need to avoid the temptation to follow the path that military interventions often follow: promise elections but not when, followed by continued promises and delays.

Once again Egypt is at a crossroad, a dangerous crossroad. Will the fall of the Morsi government, not at the ballot box but through a populist uprising and military interventions, validate the increasing claim of many policymakers and commentators that the Arab Spring is dead and now in the midst of a long winter?