One by one they took the podium. The Chief of the Constitutional Court. The Sheikh of al-Azhar, traditional Sunni Islam’s highest authority. The Coptic Pope. Mohammed el-Baradei, Nobel laureate and Egypt’s chief liberal. A young revolutionary from the Tamarrod movement that had brought millions onto the streets. Even a bearded Salafi leader, considered a fanatical extremist by the Muslim Brotherhood. The message to Mohammed Morsi was unmistakeable:
“The stocks were sold, the press was squared/The middle class was quite prepared.”
General al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s army who had, resplendent in his medals, formal beret and short sleeved summer dress uniform, just announced this impossibly broad coalition, could admire a job well done. As the tanks rolled across the Nile bridges, wags even produced posters bearing the general’s face atop a homage to Magritte: “ceci n’est pas un coup.”
Cheers rose from Tahrir, fireworks lit up the sky, and laser pointers mottled a military helicopter circling the crowd.
Ousted president Morsi had disappeared, arrested by members of his own praetorian guard, and was thought to be at their headquarters. The constitution having been suspended, the chief justice of the now superfluous constitutional court was the next day sworn in as interim president. Warrants for the arrest of Brotherhood leaders were issued by the hundred. Al Jazeera’s vernacular Arabic station was raided, its staff seized and equipment confiscated. Brotherhood TV stations were taken off the air. A new joke began doing the rounds “Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all tried to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Morsi succeeded.”
How had this come to pass? The Brothers had survived for eighty years, through much fiercer repression. How could they have allowed themselves to be bested by this very Egyptian coup, announced forty-eight hours in advance?
Morsi is a stubborn man. He won his election against Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s discredited ex-Prime Minister, by ‘the skin of an onion,’ which he proceeded to rub in the eyes of the 48.3 per cent of Egyptians who voted against him. The Brothers packed the constitution-drafting body. Their thugs beat up the opposition. Morsi declared himself above the law, and antagonised the military. But Morsi’s onion skin victory reflected the Brotherhood’s superior organisation rather more than the distribution of opinion in Egypt.
He thought he didn’t need allies. He grew reckless. He made an extremist linked to the Luxor massacre its governor. He blamed petrol shortages on a conspiracy by loyalists of the old Mubarak regime. His opponents’ numbers swelled. 22 million people (more than had voted for him) signed a petition demanding he resign. Washington let it be known he could save face by appointing a national unity candidate, and replacing his provincial governors. He refused. General al-Sisi announced his 48 hour deadline: go, or we’ll intervene. Had he made concessions, Morsi might still have saved his job, or at least his party’s hold on power. He made none. He hectored the nation, and called his opponents’ patriotism into question. Morsi is a stubborn man.
He compounded this with gross tactical mistakes. He allowed himself to be captured, and his TV stations seized. He should have surrounded himself with tens of thousands of supporters, and dared the army to clear them away. He’d spent too much time reading the Qur’an, and not enough understanding Machiavelli.
After Morsi’s tragedy came military farce. El Baradei was named Prime Minister, then de-named. Alternative candidates for the post, when they could be identified, would not accept. A timetable for elections would have reassured. Instead we got silence, filled with speculation, and inflammatory speeches by Brotherhood leaders threatening to hold everyone in Tahrir Square responsible for the coup.
Last Friday night a huge street battle, just the kind of thing the military justified its intervention to prevent, flared on the 6th of October Bridge across the Nile, perfectly placed for the world’s media. Most of the men threw stones and fireworks and petrol bombs. But some carried guns.
Guns were fired yesterday at dawn. At least 50 people, most supporters of the ousted president, were killed outside the Republican Guard’s offices. The Army claim they were shot at first, the Brotherhood that it was an unprovoked attack on its supporters engaged in their morning prayer. But that the Army carried out the shootings is not in serious dispute (The military’s defence: we didn’t kill people, but if we did, we were only defending ourselves). Now that the Salafist Nour party has withdrawn its support from the new administration, the killings seem to have jolted the authorities into offering a schedule for transition. A referendum on a new constitution in four months, parliamentary elections two weeks after that. The Brotherhood have called for an “uprising,” with mass demonstrations starting today.
Egypt has almost fully divided into opposing camps. Square and Army on one side, Mosque on the other. Does the army care more about protecting its business interests or destroying the Brothers? Its military men are pulled this way by greed and that way by wrath. The Brothers made immobile by pride. Cool heads are scarce. Egypt will need a miracle if they can’t be found.