On Wednesday, Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by millions of protesters and the Egyptian armed forces in what many are calling a “relaunch” of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Amidst widespread protests and celebrations across the nation this evening, Egypt’s top military general announced that the constitution has been suspended and that the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court will act as interim president until the early elections.
The international community and media are now divided over whether the ousting of Morsi constitutes a military coup d’etat. According to U.S. international law, aid cannot be given to any nation where the democratically elected president has been deposed, meaning Egypt could lose out on $1.3 billion in foreign aid.
Nevertheless, the protests against Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have intensified quickly over the last week. Millions of people mobilized and occupied squares across the nation on Sunday, prompting the armed forces to give Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to leave office. In a nod to the humor of the Egyptian movement, some activists created a “Bye Bye Morsi” countdown ticker, while another activist created a QR code sign that calls for Morsi’s departure in 14 different languages.
The current opposition movement began with a grassroots campaign called Tamarod, which means rebel in Arabic. Founded in late April, the movement’s participants spent months collecting signatures for a petition that denounced the lack of physical and economic security since Morsi assumed office. Using both social media and traffic-blocking sign-ins, the activists said they collected more than 22 million signatures as of this week, a full quarter of Egypt’s population.
The future role of the military — which ruled the nation for the second half of the 20th century — will be a major factor in determining the outcome of this week’s events. Currently, the armed forces and the opposition movements appear to have an alliance, one perhaps prompted by fear of Egypt devolving into a violent situation similar to Syria. On Monday, the spokesperson of the Tamarod movement backed the military’s 48-hour ultimatum, saying, “the army responding to the demands of the people crowns our movement.” Wednesday, the spokesman rejected the idea of a military coup, calling it instead a “popular coup.”
Although the idea of a “popular coup” appears counterintuitive, it is not impossible. In a 2012 essay in the Harvard International Law Journal, law professor Ozan Varol argues for the potential of a “democratic coup d’etat” — essentially an upheaval that falls within the confines of democracy rather than outside it. According to Varol, there are seven determining factors:
“The military coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; the military responds to popular opposition against that regime; the authoritarian or totalitarian leader refuses to step down in response to the popular opposition; the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; the military executes the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.”
Interestingly, one of the democratic coup d’etats that Varol highlighted was the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Whether this week’s events in Egypt would qualify as a democratic coup d’etat depends on when the military holds the promised elections and transfers power to elected leaders, as well as whether one considers Morsi’s presidency an “authoritarian or totalitarian regime.” After the 2011 revolution, the military remained in control of the country for far longer than many Egyptians wanted, and social media is already filled with statements by activists rejecting the possibility of sustained military rule. As Egyptian activist Mayssa Sultan wrote on Facebook:
“We are not interested in returning to military rule.[We] will not be duped again to celebrating in the streets until we have a civilian Presidential council in place, a new plan for developing an honest and open dialogue which creates a Constitution which is just, includes all members and segments of society and a process for transitioning to the system of government we were going for in the first place. This is a chance to re-live February 11, 2011, when we celebrated, went home and waited for justice to occur.”
Since taking office 13 months ago, Morsi’s presidency has been riddled with economic, political, social and religious problems. As food prices rose and gas shortages became common, Morsi came under intense criticism for annulling constitutional amendments and attempting to give himself the right to legislate without judicial oversight. He also began targeting and jailing comedians and journalists. Yet, the tipping point — at least in Morsi’s relationship to the military — may have come last month when he attended a rally with Islamic radicals calling for a “holy war” in Syria.
These criticisms sparked the current protests, which many are heralding as a continuation of the Arab Spring uprising. Yet, increasingly, this week’s mobilizations are manifesting some of the same challenges as two years ago — particularly around sexual violence in occupied spaces. According to the group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, there were nearly 50 sexual assaults during protests on June 30 alone. According to many activists, the Muslim Brotherhood is using sexual assault and rape to undermine the protests and deter women from participating. But activists also contend that the sexual violence is coming from within the movement itself. As one Egyptian activist explained on Facebook:
“When assaults happened on last January 25th, there was a campaign by civilian, leftist and nationalist parties alongside the media crying out that the Muslim Brotherhood want to terrorize women and are using the old regime’s tactics by organized mobs. That was the end of it. Many of us tried to explain to ‘our camp’ that the issue is larger than organized mobs and that harassment is a common daily occurrence everywhere; that everyday papers have news of rape incidents; and that it even happen during feasts. They all dealt with us as we are mad.”
Nevertheless, protesters have learned from the Arab Spring mobilizations, and activists groups like the Tahrir Bodyguards are already organized and working to combat sexual harassment and violence in mass mobilizations.
Outside the increasing problem of sexual violence and a handful of clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi activists, the transition has largely been nonviolent. Today, however, the military has sent armored vehicles to the sites of pro-Morsi rallies, issued arrest warrants for 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood and is reportedly planning to clear these gatherings. Security forces even raided Al Jazeera’s Egypt service (Al Jazeera Misr), detaining staff members and stopping the broadcast from a pro-Morsi rally.
Such actions highlight the precarious and potentially problematic role of the military in the coming days. Unlike in other countries, Egypt’s military has a stake in almost every industry in the country, raising further questions as to the institution’s motivation for involvement.
Despite these outstanding questions, many are celebrating the events as evidence that the Arab Spring succeeded in radicalizing Egyptian society, re-instilling the population with the spirit of protest.
“They thought good enough was enough,” wrote Mayssa Sultan on Wednesday. “We said, no, we want it all.”