07/17/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

The Many Plagues of Egypt

Amidst the different bitter disputes raging within the cultural, political and geopolitical matrix, the Egyptians had another putsch. A set of heterogeneous forces composed of democrats, liberals, Nasserites, leftists, youth, women and minorities, all frightened by the grip on power of the Muslim Brotherhood ("MB") and with the support of the Army, ousted the first ever elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. If Morsi and the MB have failed to build a new, inclusive democratic state in Egypt by their restrictive policies, the Egyptian democrats failed to achieve power via the ballot box. There is no such thing as a "coup-volution" but only a "coup d'état," even though with the support of people. Democracy can be born and rise only via the ballot box. So if the Egyptian democrats are not able to rapidly force the Army to call new elections to pass full power to a civil government, the Army will remain the undemocratic supreme arbiter of political scenarios, just as in times past. In such case, all talk of a "people's coup" would be futile, and as usual the ultimate losers from the coup will be those who cheered for it.

The MB, a deep-rooted social and political organization, is unlikely to just skulk off and disappear from the political scene, despite the arrests of its leaders and activists; in fact, the game is far from over. The political-religious organization founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, which has become the source of inspiration for various fundamentalist groups beyond Egyptian's borders, has resisted repression by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Further pressure on the organization could push it toward a hard line, more like its Palestinian branch, Hamas. So the coup d'état headed by General Fattah Abdul al-Sisi could possibly lead Egypt, not to a flawed Turkish model as some analysts surmise, but more probably to a Pakistani model, transforming the great country into one of serial disruptions and unrest. The Army's coup against a democratically elected government could bring violence and decades of conflict. If the Egyptian democrats of all stripes are not careful, the present clashes could distill into a battle between the Army and the al-Qaeda style jihadists. Such a situation could open the Gates of Hell for all Egyptians

However, although the fledgling democracy came to a rapid end, perhaps all is not lost; should the Army fail to deliver plenary power to a civilian government elected by free ballot under the auspices of and with monitoring by the UN and the international community, the power of civil disobedience might still work, even against the Army.

Until the situation and the direction of the new Army-installed government of the moderate judge Adly Mansour becomes clearer, it is possible and necessary to consider some political and geopolitical causes and consequences of the situation in Egypt

There are many reasons why political Islam failed its first test in Egypt.

A. Economic Insecurity - Muslim Brotherhood Failure to Manage the Economy
The Egyptian economy is weak structurally. It is estimated that one-third of all Egyptians in paid employment work for the state, and one-fifth live on less than $2 a day. More than a million citizens of Cairo actually live in cemeteries. About fifty percent of Egypt's national product - from vital goods such as bread and mineral water up to the American-designed tanks assembled under license -- is controlled by the Army or companies linked directly to it. This grip on economic power stymies the rise and development of an independent middle class and renders impossible any liberal or democratic evolution. This is the legacy of the past that the MB was unable to improve.

The country is condemned by its own economic structure to oscillate between fundamentalism and the game of the Army, which is likely planning to perpetuate its grip on power. The Army remains an institution beyond the control or oversight by any civilian institution such as Parliament or the Executive branch.

Insecurity about the future of the Suez Canal -- indeed, about the future of Egypt -- leads to a decline in tourism, exacerbating the economic crisis. Under Morsi, Egypt's foreign exchange reserves fell from $36 billion at the end of Mubarak's rule to $16 billion, just enough to cover the nation's imports for one fiscal quarter. During the year of the Morsi government, foreign debt increased from of $34 billion to $45 billion. Domestic debt has now reached E£365 billion (Egyptian Pounds). Fifty percent of the population falls under the poverty line and unemployment is at 32%. The deficits in recent months have required injections of liquidity from Qatar, Libya and Turkey.

To be fair, when considering Morsi's inability to turn the economy around, it is also necessary to acknowledge the obstacles put in place to undermine his efforts by the old state apparatus and privileged social categories linked to the Mubarak regime.

B. Political Insecurity - Responsibility for the Coup Responsibility for the coup d'état falls on all Egyptians, including the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi Although their percentage in victory was not very high or solid, the MB did nevertheless win the elections of 2012 and Morsi become the first Egyptian president ever democratically elected. Yet Morsi and the MB didn't realize -- or were unwilling to realize -- that such a tight election in a period of bitter social and cultural rifts called for national reconciliation, and that their victory should lead toward more responsibility and sensitivity to the needs of all parts of Egyptian society. Where modesty, moderation and a broadly based government representing all the different souls of the country were needed, Morsi, backed by the MB and their Freedom and Justice Party, has taken the opposite course. Through 'reform' of controversial parts of the constitution, he has sought to put himself above the Judiciary. According to International Crisis Group:

"As Egypt teeters on the verge of a catastrophic confrontation, it is difficult to discern who has been more short-sighted: an arrogant Muslim Brotherhood that misread electoral gains for a political blank-check or a reckless opposition that has appeared ready to sink the country in order to bring down the Islamists and whose criteria for ousting the president -- generalized incompetence and wide unpopularity -- could send many presidents packing."

For its part, the MB, formed originally as a religio-political movement during a time of persecution, illegality and repression, has come to be seen by many Egyptians as an opaque organization with suspect extraterritorial allegiances.

In reality, the MB is not a monolithic organization. There are proponents of extreme capitalism, as well as Salafis, Jihadis and a few Sufis. Up to now, the MB has not been able to recognize the full democratic legacy of the January Revolution, even though it has been accepted at the ballot box. Apart from the general and ontological intolerance (against Secularists, Christians, Shiites and other minorities). An example of this intolerance is the Egyptian influential Sunni theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi who defines Alawites worse than Christians and Jews and like them heretics and claims holy war in Syria.

Furthermore, over the long term, repression and a certain authoritarianism have fulminated within the MB, resulting in retributive actions against journalists critical of the regime, as well as against activists and proponents of a more secular society. This aspect of the MB has naturally antagonized the youth, women, minorities and democrats -- the protagonists of the January Revolution, and the principal agents of change.

Stir repression into the cauldron where widespread discontent and economic insecurity are already bubbling, and the explosive mixture is complete and ready to boil over. Little wonder that millions of Egyptians take to the streets and give birth to the civil disobedience and rebellion (Tamarrod) movement which, with 22 million signatures, demands Morsi's resignation.

Meanwhile, the Salafist party al Nour, linked to Saudi Wahabbism and petrodollars, was busy trying to capitalize on the fall of Morsi by implying an unwritten agreement with the Army, adding another dash of danger to the Egyptian soup.

C. Personal Insecurity - Upsurge in Crime and Gang Activity
Under Morsi's rule, crime at every level has increased. Egyptian government statistics show a 300 percent increase in homicides and a 12-fold increase in armed robberies since the 2011 revolution. The inability of the government to assure security has resulted in an upsurge of gang activity, largely as a consequence of the black market in weapons. This is especially evident in Cairo, where it is now easy to buy a pistol or other weapon, conveniently defined by dealers as intended for self defense. The Police force has played a role, too, by acting in complicity with the Army to suggest that "all is less safe under the MB.

Meanwhile, the Morsi regime has spent more energy worrying about women's attire than their security and rights; most Egyptian women now call the Muslim Botherhood as Muslism, the "smothering brotherhood." In this environment, harassment of women and sexual assault against them has become a real social plague.

D. The Sunni Rift and Attitudes About the Coup
The Sunni/Shi'a schism is generally considered the most important Islamic cultural conflict, but the truly major rifts are within Sunni Islam itself. Sunnis make up about 85-90% of Muslims world-wide. The Sunni world is characterized by many divisions, but there are two great Sunni centers of gravity, opposed to one another both culturally and politically. The absolutist monarchies of the Persian Gulf, dominated by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and others constitutes the first; the second consists of the Muslim Brotherhood-style regimes that have been willing -- at least up to now -- to accept an electoral process: the Turkey of the Erdogan-Gul duo, the current regimes in Libya and Tunisia, Oatar of Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (resigned), a significant part of Syrian opposition forces, and ... Egypt under Morsi. Between these two axes there are a set of true cultural and political tensions and above all a geopolitical fight for control of resources and influence. This rivalry shows itself in the positions assumed as regards the Egyptian coup. The Muslim Brotherhood axis is critical while the monarchies cheer.

Egypt, a central player in the past, is now itself become the playing field, where Sunni and Arab rivals battle for dominance. Since the coup d'état, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms are pouring $12 billion into a post-Morsi Egypt in favor of the coup, while the U.S. seems to be reconsidering its own foreign aid priorities.Thus are these absolute monarchies with no home-grown democratic legacy lending support to the coup d'etat in Egypt against the MB, while the MB axis -- even though in the midst of contradictions -- accept the verdict of the ballot box.

E. American Uncertainty
Consider, then, the conundrum for the United States, which is more or less allied with both sides. The Obama administration declared it would withdraw from Iraq (done) and Afghanistan (in process) and concentrate its "nation building" at home. Add to this the famous Sequester with its forced budget cuts, including the military budget, and a de facto disengagement of from the Mediterranean and concomitant shift to the Persian Gulf (Iran) and the Pacific (China).

If the U.S. may thus be seen as "abandoning" somewhat the Middle East, there is nevertheless instinctive sympathy for a regime elected in a fair ballot. The Obama administration supports the Turkish model, where the army led the country toward a kind of democracy, even though Islamic style and flawed (see the protests in Taksim Square). There has been an 'unwritten agreement' between the U.S. and the MB axis reinforcing security and stability after American disengagement from its wars and de facto from the Middle East. Yet, as shown by the coup in Egypt the huge protests throughout Turkey, this model is highly flawed and has not worked. Does this mean America should revert to support for the poisoned arms of the Arab absolutist monarchs? Should it continue to hold with the MB axis? Or should America just leave the Middle East arena entirely, leaving a chasm that could be rapidly occupied by global rivals like China?

F. Uncertainty within the International Community

The Muslim Brotherhood, while respecting the international commitments of the former regime, has not been effective in isolating and containing, either within Egyptian society or within its own organizational structures, the jihadi sympathizers, who consider democracy as heresy. Even less has the Morsi regime been able to marginalize the Salafist guerrillas in Sinai. The profound international concern (especially in geographically proximate Europe and Russia, but also in India, China and elsewhere) is to halt the advance in Egypt and within the MB of Salafist Jihadis, who could seriously endanger the security and stability of the entire area and thus of the world. The unique way to avoid the threat of Salafist Jihadis is to restore a real democratic process in Egypt.

G. The Way Forward
There is no reason for the international community to accept or even recognize the coup d'état in Egypt. However, there is no way back, either. The only way is forward: The constitution should be rapidly reinstalled and new elections promptly held, including participation by the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Morsi himself should be freed from detention.

To isolate and marginalize extremism in the area it is necessary to recognize and support the democratic process from the bottom up, within a multilateral framework, with the participation of all global and regional players, overseen and legitimized by international institutions such as the United Nations.