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The power and the mandate in Egypt

by Rabbi Reuven Firestone

July 4, 2013 | 2:44 pm

Egyptian military jets fly in formation over protesters against ousted president Mohamed Morsi at Tahrir square, as the head of Egypt's constitution court Adli Mansour is sworn in as the interim head of state, in Cairo July 4. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egyptian military jets fly in formation over protesters against ousted president Mohamed Morsi at Tahrir square, as the head of Egypt's constitution court Adli Mansour is sworn in as the interim head of state, in Cairo July 4. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Mohamed Morsi is now out, and it is virtually impossible for him to pull off a personal comeback in the near future. His downfall is a result of his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s unsophisticated view of democracy in conjunction with their naïve assumption that they had real power. This combination proved to be a fatal mistake. They mistakenly assumed that once Morsi was elected by a majority of voters (not the majority of the people), he was given both the mandate and the power to rule. The truth of any democracy is that neither of these assumptions is automatically true.

Morsi’s failed mandate

Morsi was given his mandate by a narrow majority, and only of those voting — not the Egyptian people. His mandate was provisional. Many of those demonstrating in Tahrir Square and elsewhere did not vote. Certain activist groups withdrew from the process because they were afraid they would give legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood. Others voted for Morsi but were against the Muslim Brotherhood. Why would they vote for Morsi yet oppose the Brotherhood? Because the election was manipulated to be a vote between the Brotherhood represented by Morsi, and the military represented by Ahmed Shafiq. Many preferred even a Muslim Brotherhood activist to the military. Morsi’s mandate was short-lived because it became obvious to all who are not hard-core Muslim Brotherhood supporters that he was not interested in real democracy. Many of those who had voted for him last year publicly opposed him in recent days. The extraordinary number of demonstrators proved how disappointed the country was with his failure to govern properly.

Where lies the power in Egypt?

The Egyptian military proved without a shadow of a doubt where the power lies in Egypt. Morsi was deposed in five minutes after a 48-hour warning and without really firing a shot. This is a powerful message to the Egyptian people. The power lies with the Egyptian armed forces. If a political leader or party does not please the army, they will eventually be in trouble. Note the parallel, by the way, with Turkey until only recently — but that’s a different discussion.

The military

The military clearly has the power. At this moment, from the clear message of the current round of demonstrations, it also has the popular mandate. The question that needs to be considered most urgently is, what does the military want?

The military does not want to govern directly. It has experienced that, it did it badly, and it wanted out. That is why there were democratic elections. The army allowed elections and supported them.

The army wants Egypt to be functional. That is its bottom line. It does not care much about democracy. The culture of military life does not promote feelings of democracy. Armies can only function properly when officers give orders without discussion and debate. But whether the army is pro-democracy, anti-democracy, or simply a-democracy, it sees its major responsibility to defend the country from outsiders and not insiders. It does not want to deploy on the streets and fight against its own citizens.

The army does not want to govern, but it wants the country to be functional, and it is here where it can be influenced. Those forces or parties that seem most capable of running a functional country, while channeling to the army the resources that it considers its due, will get the support of the army.

The old regime

Mubarak was the person in authority, but he did not really have the power. When it became clear to the military that Mubarak was a liability, he was simply removed. He was no longer able to control the street, so he was eliminated. The military was loved for their act because it was seen as the salvation of Egypt and the source of a new hope for democracy. But remember that democracy is unimportant for the military. They can take it or leave it, as long as their position is protected and the country will be functional. It is certainly not functional now, but the military is the only institution at this point that has the time, patience and resources to work through the ups and downs and stay on top of the situation.

In the meantime, the entire bureaucracy of the Egyptian state was staffed with people who were loyal to Mubarak — who was loyal to the military. The military has always feared and hated the Muslim Brotherhood, so when Morsi took over the leadership of the Egyptian bureaucracy as president, his efforts at running the system were stonewalled. He failed on his own accord to work with anybody who was not Brotherhood, but he failed in the normal bureaucratic running of the country because he was set up to fail. 

The street

The biggest change that the Arab Spring brought to the Arab world is the lesson that the Arab people now, after centuries of lethargy and indifference, are willing to rise up against what they consider to be unacceptable governance. That has been a shock to everybody, including the military two years ago and the Muslim Brotherhood last week. Recall that the Brotherhood only joined the demonstrations when it saw that it had no choice. Brotherhood leaders realized that to hold back would have cost them a sense of legitimacy in Egyptian society. And last week, we saw that Morsi and the Brotherhood completely misread the willingness of the people to rise up in self-sacrifice yet again in order to improve their unhappy lives.

The inherent problem with “the street” is that it is such a big tent that it can only articulate general demands. It cannot deal with specifics. The specifics need to be worked out democratically, but Egypt has no real experience with the process of democracy. That is one of the reasons why Morsi failed. He failed to act like a mature and caring ruler. He failed to work with his opposition. He failed to find solutions through compromise. Like many other Egyptians, Morsi did not understand that once in power a leader still needs to continue to listen to the will of the people.

This, by the way, is a very important observation for those who have said that Egypt will be a democratic country only for the span of one election. Once the Muslim Brotherhood is democratically elected, they said, that will be the end of democracy. The street has proven otherwise, and all Egyptians now understand this. So does the army. It was the will and support of the people that enabled Morsi to sideline the army when he did so some months ago. It was the will of the people that gave the army the opportunity to assert itself once again this week. There is a lot of potential with the street (i.e., the will of the people), but it has to be measured fairly and managed effectively. The current process of calling out the masses for vague demands for change does neither, and so far, its success is only partial.

The military coup

The removal of Morsi was a military coup. Some people call it a revolution because it had the support of the street and probably a significant majority of the Egyptian people. But it was not a popular revolution, and what happened is not really a new phenomenon in Egypt. The “Free Officers Movement” that brought Nasser to power in the 1950s also had the vague support of the street. It was not a revolution either, and the result was a military dictatorship that has endured ever since. 

So we are now at a moment when the military, with the blessing of the majority of the Egyptian people, has actually put a brake on the democratic process. The process was flawed but was nevertheless an important movement in the right direction. The military is now the obvious power in Egypt and will remain so for the immediate future. It is working with various factions, but always with the same goal of remaining at the core of the system.

What has changed?

Actually a lot, in fact a sea change among the Egyptian people as a whole. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians — secular, religious, on the left and right of center as well as in the middle — want more freedom, support for diversity, more economic opportunity and an end to cronyism. They want equal opportunity and a fair chance to build their lives, and many are willing to fight and risk their lives to achieve it. On the other hand, they have not experienced true democracy and they have shown that they do not understand its processes. They have little experience dealing with the difficult life of political barter, and they have virtually no Egyptian role models aside from military or religious leadership, neither of which is particularly interested in democratic ideals. The Egyptian people need to develop their own version of democratic governance, and they are struggling with making that happen. We will see in the next months and years whether the will of the people will translate into a truly functional democracy.


Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of California.

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