Beyond the army’s dramatic intervention today, Egypt’s near-term political evolution will be impossible to predict. Some constants can nonetheless be ascertained. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been consistent in their objectives. They may be willing to listen to different views, but have never meaningfully accommodated any of them. The opposition―which has shown that it can mobilize millions in protests―remains amorphous and leaderless. Protestors and opposition leaders have called for Morsi’s departure, but their ultimate objectives range from the formation of a technocratic cabinet and improved living conditions, to some combination of a new national government, a new constituent assembly and constitutional referendum, an independent electoral commission, and early elections. The unity and unanimity of the opposition will be tested in the days to come. The third party in the ongoing confrontation is the military, which walks a fine line between exercising internal influence and not antagonizing its external supporters. Overall, a consistent trend is the emergence of competing and antagonistic national narratives that may complicate future reconciliation.
The June 30th movement, according to the narrative adopted by those disenchanted with Morsi’s presidency, is not a new revolution. It aims to reclaim the historic January 25, 2011 revolution which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. That movement, in turn, derived from decades of civil activism and human rights movements, which drew their national vision from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 against the British―the point of departure of an inclusive, progressive, and liberal Egypt. After decades of authoritarianism following a coup in 1952, incremental changes seemed to promise a new democratic order. Elections in 2005 yielded tangible, even if modest, progress. However, such gains were reversed when Mubarak blatantly orchestrated elections in 2010 to pave the way for the succession of his son.
Events in Tunisia in early 2011 were merely a catalyst for a revolution in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood did not initiate it, but through its extensive organization and networks, it was the best positioned to reap the immediate benefits. Seeking stability, the military establishment and the United States prompted the country towards an abrupt transition which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The Brotherhood’s leadership was conditional on solemn promises made by Morsi himself that they would not seek a monopoly on power. Instead, opponents argue, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi broke their promises and attempted to change the character of the nation―dismantling cultural institutions, infiltrating the deep state, and interdicting the emergence of organized civil opposition―thus staging, in fact, a coup from within. The seemingly patronizing positions from the Obama Administration admonishing opponents to respect the democratic process did not help, for they failed to recognize that Egypt, with its dissolved legislature, invalidated constitution, and contested judiciary, was not an established democracy.
Supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood hold a diametrically opposing reading of history and current events. They see the roots of last year’s revolution in the 1928 founding of their movement, which attempted to elevate Egypt through the total embrace of Islam. Decades of struggle and hardship have seen the movement advance towards its goals of reforming the individual, the family, and society, before seeking political power to fulfill its project of a modern Islamic state. The Brotherhood recognized that its project of social reform was incomplete, and believes that it had to accommodate political pluralism as an act of goodwill which was never reciprocated. In their reading, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood did not break promises, but merely revised their course of action to defend their organization, which they are convinced is more popular than electoral results suggest. The Brotherhood blames the United States―along with Israel and Ethiopia―for supporting opposition to its project of Islamic revival, and points to a consistent pattern of Western hypocrisy towards democracy―having ignored the annulment of fair democratic elections won by Islamists in Algeria in 1991 and having punished Palestinians for their free choice of Hamas in the elections of 2006, it is now requesting undue compromise from the democratically elected leader of Egypt.
The fact that the Obama Administration mishandled its messages to Egyptians―both the proponents and opponents of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood―may yet be corrected. But it will require a less improvised and less patronizing approach. The continuing divergence of two competing national narratives in Egypt―both in agreement about the negative role of the United States―is a dangerous development that may be a harbinger of more turmoil of the kind we have witnessed over the past 24 hours.