June 26, 2019

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  • Op-ed: Coup vs. revolution: Which narrative to prevail?

    File photo of anti-Morsi protesters during the June 30 uprising.

    BY ABDELGHANY SAYED Cairo –Following 18 days of protests in around five governorates, Egyptians woke up on 11 February 2011 to see military tanks across the country; while rumors spread that Mubarak is about to step down. A few hours after midday, Egypt’s ex-spy chief, who was appointed as vice-president on 29 January 2011, Omar Suleiman, announced that Mubarak has stepped down and handed power over to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), while SCAF’s spokesperson announced that the military took over power. Mubarak was then put under house arrest by the military in an unknown place, (Sharm El-Sheikh according to widespread rumors back then) before his arrest took a legal path in early August 2011, or, to be politically correct, he disappeared.

    While almost the same mentioned scenario took place in Tunisia on 14 January, the Egyptian, Tunisian and international media/community were quite supportive of the extra-constitutional change of government movements and described them as ‘revolutions’. Inspired by the controversial reactions to the ongoing events in Egypt, I write this to question the legitimacy of the current movement and compare it to that of 2011.

    What is a ‘revolution’?

    While the common understanding that neither coups nor revolutions are legal, the latter enjoy political legitimacy. I view the current ‘revolution vs. coup’ debate as a very crucial one for Egypt’s democratic transition and national reconciliation – if there is a real intention to include all society sects in the future political life, including supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi.

    In his book “No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991“, Jeff Goodwin wrote that:

    According to one (broader) definition, revolution refers to any and all instances in which a state or a political regime is overthrown and thereby transformed by a popular movement in an irregular, extra-constitutional and/or violent fashion … According to another (more restrictive) definition, revolutions entail not only mass mobilization and regime change, but also more or less rapid and fundamental social, economic and/or cultural change, during or soon after the struggle for state power.

    According to different academic definitions, one should take account of two different dimensions to reach a judgment on an extra-constitutional change of governments of a given state: one is the source of the movement, while the other is the effect of the movement.

    The first dimension implies that the people make revolutions, whilst relatively small and highly organized groups (often the military) make sudden un-constitutional change of governments – coups. But the matter becomes more problematic as the source of the movement is not always that clear. Indeed, it was inevitable for the Tunisian and the Egyptian people to seek the assistance of the army to enable them to oust Ben Ali and Mubarak. When the Egyptian youth started moving towards Mubarak’s palace on the 10th of February, they were aware that they would face only one of two fates; they would be either killed or protected by the military that was assigned to protect all public buildings, including the presidential palace. One day later, and a few hours before announcing Mubarak’s fall, protesters got the army’s message when the tanks reversed its canons towards the palace instead of the people.

    While the two movements mentioned hereinabove were described as ‘revolutions’, the developments that took place in Egypt, on 3 July, were described by many as a ‘coup’. In my view, one should consider three different issues before reaching a proper judgment on these developments; a comparison between 3 July 2013 and 11 February 2011 from two aspects: the source and the effects of both movements.

    The source and the effects: February 11 vs. July 3

    To begin with, those who decide to deal with the latest developments in Egypt should, at least, be aware of the nature of the political arena they are dealing with. While the political scene used to comprise three main poles – the Mubarak entourage, the military and the opposition, it was clear that two poles at least have to be united together to control the state. It was also clear that the 18-day crisis – from January 25 to February 11 – was merely a reflection of a disturbance in the alliances within the mentioned status quo that was resolved following the military’s decision to abandon the fragile and collapsing player on February 11. Following the ouster of Mubarak, a new tri-polar status quo was formed in which the ruling alliance was formed of the military and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) against the weaker player– the opposition. Finally, the 9-month – from November 2012 to July 2013 – turmoil was also a result of a disturbance in the alliances within the status quo that was then resolved upon the military’s decision to take the opposition’s side.

    Resembling the US foreign strategy in Egypt, the stronger pole on the Egyptian political arena – the military – seems to be quite pragmatic when it forms its alliances; it abandoned Mubarak when it appeared that he is the weaker and least controlling player; moreover, it did the same with the opposition when the MB succeeded in portraying itself as the stronger player that can best control the streets during the 2011-2012 transitional period, and finally, the MB itself was abandoned when the opposition could organize itself and win the military on its side.

    Upon the lapse of his first 100 days in power, protesters started taking to the streets against Mursi, who failed to meet his promises implied in the 100-day Plan(a list of promises made by Mursi in his election campaign). Since the November 22 Constitutional Declaration and until Mursi’s ouster, protests never stopped across Egypt, recording the highest number of protests on an international level. In late June, Egypt witnessed the largest protests in its history, demanding that president Mursi step down.

    Resembling the first revolutionary wave in Egypt in 2011, protesters also sought the assistance/protection of the army. With the MB supporters’ violent response in different governorates and incitement to violence against the ‘infidel’ protesters, it was inevitable for protesters to seek the military’s aid against those who fight for the ‘divine legitimacy’ of their leader and chant, amid clashes, “our souls, our blood for Islam.”

    In fact, the ‘source’ of the extra-constitutional change of the February 11 government does not differ from that of the July 3. Moreover, some may argue that the latter was even more representative of the public opinion bearing in mind that the numbers that participated in the last protests, and those who signed the Tamarod (Rebel) petition, were a lot larger than those who voted for Mursi and those who took to the streets during the first revolutionary wave.

    It is clear that the anti-MB movement was not ‘sudden’, as it lasted for months, contrary to what different definitions of a ‘coup’ require. Nevertheless, similar to the January 25 wave, there is a ‘relatively small but highly organised group of political or military leaders’ that interrupted this popular uprising. Indeed, some analysts (i.e. Tariq Ramadan) argue that both movements were mere coups. However, I would argue that the ‘effects’ dimension is often underestimated by academics when they describe extra-constitutional change in governments. While different ‘coup’ definitions refer to a ‘small group’ taking control of power, it seems that eventually a ‘small and highly organized group’ has to lead any extra-constitutional change of governments; whether if it was a revolution or a coup d’état! Accordingly, the questions to ask should also be: does this ‘small group’ belong to the regime itself? To what extent would it stick to the people’s demands?

    In my view, due to the fact that one can neither see a ‘fundamental change in Egypt’s socio-political institutions’ nor examine sufficient indicators that Egypt is on the track towards such a change, everyone should refrain from using the term ‘revolution’ whether while describing the first wave in January 2011, the second wave against SCAF, or the third wave that lasted from November 2012 until July 2013. I can understand the logic behind arguments that both popular movements ended in coups, but what I find really inapprehensible are those arguments, made by those who celebrated the ‘revolution’ on 11 February 2011, that what happened on July 3 is a military coup d’état.

    It is very unfortunate that several rights activists, commentators, politicians and journalists did not even take any account of the unprecedented protests against Mursi. From their ivory towers, many decided to strip the people’s massive movement from all legitimacy by describing their sacrifices as a military coup, turning deaf ears to the people’s begging for a military intervention in their fear that their country is on verge of civil war following Mursi’s July 2 speech in which he gave no account to the millions protesting against him, clearly declaring that he would fight and die in defense of his ‘legitimacy’.

    While tens of millions had already taken to the streets, I cannot see any other scenario for the masses to topple a ‘relatively small but highly organized’ group – the Brotherhood – without seeking the intervention of another ‘relatively small but highly organized’ group, especially when we take into account what is believed among many Egyptians to be an unpleasant history of the Brotherhood and its allies, as well as the hate speech implied in some of their art workspeeches and acts.

    The MB members/supporters’ rhetoric is quite sectarian against Egypt’s Christians – several Christian families and villages were threatened and attacked by MB members/supporters in the last days. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported several pro-Mursi marches chanting sectarian slogans before churches and Christian villages in Upper-Egypt, and attacking several churches. The report also mentioned the killing of six Christians and leaving five others wounded in these events, as well as terrorising thousands of them by distributing threat leaflets. This is, I believe, what foreign media and academia failed to understand about the Egyptian case – the ‘people’ factor. The ‘people’ who experienced what a ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ government is, and expressed their refusal in unprecedented protests, which represent a substantial reason for everyone to refrain from comparing Egypt 2013 to Algeria 1991.

    Moreover, several western media outlets that claim to be impartial and independent, i.e. the New York Times, started adopting conspiracy theories that there is a ‘campaign to undermine Mursi’, through pushing people to protest against him, to justify turning a black eye to the tens of millions that demanded the removal of Mursi, and went on with publishing these theories and analyses as ‘news stories’. There might be speculations that there was a conspiracy against Mursi to push Egyptians to protest against him, as well as rebuttals thereto; however, this may not lead to overpassing the fact that millions of Egyptians took to the streets and signed rebel petitions against the president, then demanded a military intervention when all the indicators pointed to an impending civil war. Indeed, no one pays attention to the Mubarak, Bashar or Ghaddafi supporters when they argue that there was a conspiracy against their leaders, due to one fact; the populace demanded their leaders to step down after all.

    It is clear that the extra-constitutional change of governments that took place in Egypt on July 3 was not ‘sudden’, and was initiated by the people, but ended in an intervention by a ‘small and highly organized group’. Accordingly, it does compromise some characters of both definitions. I believe that these givens do not enable us to describe, what I would call, the November 2012 / July 2013 Popular Uprising as a revolution or a coup due to the importance of the ‘effects of the movement’ dimension, which is still unclear. For instance, the 1974 Coup d’état in Portugal is known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’ due to its revolutionary effects, though it was initiated by military officers not the people, unlike Egypt’s June 30 popular uprising.

    Accordingly, it is very important to determine our perspective before we judge; are we describing the ‘event’ itself (from a very narrow angle), or the whole process (from a broad angle)? If we are describing the events that took place in January/February 2011 and June/July 2013, then they both were popular revolutions that ended in military coups, due to the fact that no change can take place in Egypt without any role played by its main player; the military. On the other hand, if we are qualifying the matter from a broader perspective, we would find that it is too early to judge the intentions of the interim government, while the effects of the January 25 Uprising were a military junta that belongs to the regime itself in power, with super majority of cabinet members who either served in Mubarak’s regime or belong to the Military. Additionally, while this military junta allowed for a ‘democratic’ transition on the condition of preserving some privileges by the new civil government, the MB government’s economic and legislative policy did not differ from the former regime’s policy (in mid-May, I addressed this matter in detail in an article published on Jadaliyya).

    In conclusion, it is not journalistic articles that would make what happened in Egypt a revolution or a coup. I am only concerned about the effects of overlooking the masses that protested against the regime and demanded that the army intervene, and stripping the current government of all the legitimacy it deserves, which may inflict undesirable results on Egypt’s future if it was established in the conscience of a sect of the society – the Islamists – that they are not welcomed in the democratic process. Aside from that, between carrying out a successful transitional period that would pave the way for the January 25 uprising goals, and repeating the SCAF/MB practices, hence introduce no change and leave the military in its ultra-unique position in Egyptian politics; the call is for the interim government, and the superficial international media platforms would only follow the narrative that would impose itself.

    This commentary was first published by Aswat Masreya and is republished by The Egypt Monocle with permission.

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