Egypt: Consequences of Morsi's Removal

Morsi supporters rally at an event titled "No to Violence" in Cairo on June 21. (Photo: Mohamed Elsayyed, Shutterstock)

Weeks after the Egyptian Armed Forces acted on its "patriotic and historic responsibility" by placing President Mohamed Morsi under house arrest due to his inability to "meet the demands of the people," the national and regional impacts of the military intervention are becoming clearer. Opposition supporters praise the move as a defense of democracy and claim that the world will finally see the "real Egypt." However, Morsi's removal presents challenges that optimistic rebels may not have envisioned.

Democracy undermined

Revolution weakens democratic institutions. Stable self-government relies on determining political power through formal, verifiable elections. The system works when opposing political groups recognize the legitimacy of election results and abide by their consequences. The precedent of power transfer without official voting mechanisms undermines the idea that popular mandate and political power are derived from electoral victory. Massive demonstrations are no replacement for free, transparent elections.

Furthermore, military intervention or any other extra-legal approach to governance is a slippery slope. If elections and term limits as codified in the constitution are not the sole determinants of legitimate rule, a door is opened for the military or any popular movement to commandeer the government under the auspices of "safeguarding democracy," "protecting the people" or [insert your nationalist cause here]. The continuation of military rule in Egypt despite the appointment of an interim government exemplifies the danger associated with sidestepping democratic rules.

Opposition supporters argue that Morsi's removal was necessary to save democracy in Egypt. They point to his heavy-handed, "majoritarian" style of leadership that excluded liberal and Christian groups. They also cite his gradual consolidation of power in the executive and his backing of a constitution that lacked provisions to ensure gender equality and protect religious minorities.

It is possible that the only alternative to reverse these undemocratic trends was revolution. In fact, the military may be temporarily averting civil war. However, it comes at the cost of undermining democratic institutions in Egypt.

"Islamic frame of reference"

The overthrow of the first democratically elected Islamist government marginalizes Islamists in Egypt and around the world.

Muslim populations overwhelming prefer democracy as a form of government but insist on Islamic characteristics. While most of the Muslim world seeks to reconcile democratic and Islamic ideals, extremists maintain that democracy is not compatible with Islam. Radicals routinely exploit post-colonial resentments, dissatisfaction with Western-backed authoritarian regimes, poor economic conditions, Western military assertiveness and cultural differences to strengthen their arguments. Liberal and moderate Muslims are branded as apostates, puppets and traitors.

Within the context of this ongoing debate, it is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) represents the best opportunity that Islamists reconcile with democracy.

MB has proven to be pragmatic, especially in comparison to other Islamist organizations. The group has practiced nonviolent resistance since the 1970s, including in recent weeks after being forcefully removed from elected office. In 2007, MB endorsed democracy with an "Islamic frame of reference" instead of sharia as its preferred governmental system. After coming to power, MB maintained the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel and brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Some of the more controversial components of its political platform, such as excluding women and non-Muslims from senior government positions and establishing a religious advisory council, are the subject of intense internal debate within MB.

Furthermore, MB commands respect as the progenitor of modern Islamic resistance and has painstakingly built legitimacy over the years amongst Islamists in Egypt and around the world through avoiding cooptation by the Mubarak regime, criticizing Western states and Israel, maintaining a strong Islamic identity, and sustaining its trademark social outreach efforts.

MB's failed experiment in democratic governance and the succeeding military intervention, therefore, constitute a setback for Western-Muslim relations and, possibly, democracy. Although Gulf state monarchs and Western states view MB hesitantly, a successful effort to guide MB to the center of Egyptian politics may resonate throughout the Muslim world and bring some Islamists inside the democratic tent.

The largest, best-organized and most influential political organization in Egypt continues to be MB. If its leadership recognizes its excesses and the opposition provides a seat at the table, it remains possible for MB to bridge the gap between democracy and Islam, despite this setback.

Extreme narratives

The removal of Morsi vindicates extremist narratives. The debate over democracy is only part of the larger "clash of civilizations" discussion between the West and Islam.

Western states have continuously supported repressive and autocratic regimes that abuse Muslims, ever since Western states were themselves the repressive and autocratic colonizers of Islamic regions. For Muslims, this not only includes Israel but also Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Libya at different times.

Furthermore, Western states have been in continuous conflict and confrontation with Muslim groups and states for the last 20 years, including Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya, Hamas, Hezbollah and others. These events cause Muslims to be suspicious about the intentions of Westerners and are utilized by terrorist organizations to recruit, mobilize public support and justify their actions.

The forceful removal of the first democratically elected Islamist government feeds these extremist narratives of conspiracy and Muslim repression.

Potential escalation

The revolution sets the stage for civil war. The weakening of democratic institutions, the marginalization of Islamists and the vindication of extremist narratives—along with other conditions such as stagflation, high unemployment, income disparity, rampant crime and the influx of foreign jihadists—increase the likelihood that the political process devolves into widespread conflict.

Despite internationally recognized victories in parliamentary and presidential elections as well as the constitutional referendum, Islamists find themselves out of political power. Although MB maintains a peaceful approach, other Islamist groups have opted for violence to achieve political objectives, concluding that they have no current or future stake in a democratic Egypt.

After Mubarak's ouster in 2011, the demilitarized Sinai became a haven for Islamist extremists, Salifists and terrorist organizations. Since Morsi's removal, Egyptian Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Shari'a and Tawid wal-Jihad, along with foreign fighters arriving through Sinai from Gaza, Yemen and elsewhere, have waged a low-level insurgency. Military installations, police camps, checkpoints, airports and Christians have been targeted daily on the peninsula.

General Sherif Ismael of North Sinai Intelligence estimates that there are currently as many as 1,000 operational fighters in Sinai. However, these groups may radicalize and recruit additional Egyptians or receive foreign reinforcements. Jihadists in Sinai are smuggling in weapons such as assault rifles, RPGs, Grad rocket launchers, mortars and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns obtained when the Gaddafi regime fell, which may be proliferated throughout Egypt.

On Friday, Egyptians turned out in mass in response to General al-Sisi's call to provide a popular mandate to fight "violence and terrorism." Over the following weekend, state police killed nearly 100 MB members and sympathizers, wounded hundreds more and arrested additional senior MB leaders. The Egyptian Armed Forces also announced a large-scale operation in Sinai.

A cycle of violence appears to be materializing in the aftermath of the revolution. If the Egyptian military is careful to target irreconcilable extremist and terrorist groups and avoid unnecessary conflict with MB, it may be possible to reduce the extremist threat to peaceful conflict resolution while working to include moderate Islamists.

These trends are not a foregone conclusion ending in large-scale conflict. Egyptians may be able to navigate this complicated and tense period without escalation into mass violence. The outcome depends largely on three factors: 1) the success of the interim government in rebuilding confidence in democracy by reaching an accommodation with MB; 2) MB's willingness to make concessions and be more politically inclusive; and 3) the willingness of the Egyptian Armed Forces to relinquish power to the civilian government. The first step in establishing a stable system of self-government in Egypt is recognizing the new challenges that the revolution presents.

Jacob Cedusky is a research fellow at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan. He has a master's degree from NYU in international relations and focuses his research on civil-military affairs, international security and U.S. national defense.