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Three years after the coup, lessons still unlearned from Egypt's tragedy

The complicity of broad swathes of the revolutionary camp in the counter-revolution ensured the fragile process would be destroyed

Had it been allowed to continue, last Thursday would have seen Mohamed Morsi’s four-year term as president of a post-authoritarian Egypt draw to a close. Instead, last week marked the third anniversary of Morsi’s forced removal by a military coup that has reimposed a perpetual dictatorship upon 90 million citizens.

The calamity of Egypt continues to unfold daily, with mounting human rights abuses, stifling of dissent, widespread corruption, economic crisis, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a new authoritarian ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All of Egypt’s independent political forces acknowledge that the country’s dismal state represents a betrayal of the revolutionary movement launched in 2011. But for all of the talk that the embers of Egypt’s revolution continue to burn, however dimly, there can be no revival of that moment without a genuine appraisal of the events of 30 June, 2013 and their consequences.

As Egypt’s most organised social movement, the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to play a key role in the transition but its desire to dominate that process at the exclusion of other forces caused deep divisions within the ranks of Egypt’s revolutionary movement at a time when the need for unity was paramount.

Morsi mistook the heightened discord within society for healthy disagreements that are part and parcel of any vibrant democracy. But Egypt in 2013 was far from a functional democratic order and the desire of one party to leverage its electoral gains to dictate the rules governing the country’s future - from issuing unilateral decrees to imposing a constitution - represented a dangerous approach at a time when a deft touch was crucial.

Notwithstanding the defensive posture of the group’s senior leadership, the past three years have witnessed the emergence of a more introspective class of Muslim Brotherhood activists engaged in a reassessment of the organisation’s actions during the Morsi era. They have proposed major reforms to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as separating its missionary activity from its political work, joining the ranks of the revolutionaries as an equal partner, and forsaking the call for Morsi’s reinstatement as president in favour of a unity government agreed upon by all parties.

Perhaps more significantly, while the conservative old guard believes that the Morsi government’s mistake was in challenging key state institutions too aggressively, the revolutionary wing of the Muslim Brotherhood believes Morsi erred by abandoning the demands of the revolution.

For all of his strategic and policy deficiencies, there is nothing in Morsi’s brief time as president that warranted the military’s intervention, let alone the enthusiastic response with which it was met by millions of Egyptians. The faux outrage of Egypt’s liberal and leftist forces at Morsi’s actions betrayed their severe lack of political depth and moral inconsistency.

Morsi’s culpability in Egypt’s energy crisis was dubious at best. At worst it was a cynical ploy to destabilise the country’s first freely elected government. His decision to remove a corrupt public prosecutor, along with the now infamous November 2012 decree restoring executive powers to the presidency were both decisions in line with the demands of the revolution, yet they elicited comparisons to Pharaoh.

If one looks beyond the hyperbolic outbursts by critics, the decisions for which Morsi received the most scorn by revolutionaries were in effect the most revolutionary steps he took during his year in office.


In fact, these forces have yet to come to terms with the fact that their supposed “corrective revolution” of 30 June was in reality the counter-revolution to restore the state’s authoritarian ways. Tamarod, the grassroots movement that reportedly collected 22 million signatures calling upon Morsi to step down, had been infiltrated by Egyptian state security.

The National Salvation Front led by Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi did its part to escalate tensions in the lead-up to the 30 June protests, effectively abandoning the tenuous process that began following Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in favour of a foolish alliance with the Egyptian military and its Gulf backers. For his part in legitimising the coup, Mohamed ElBaradei was chosen as vice-president of the government that gave rise to Sisi’s resurgent dictatorship.

Even after the single largest massacre in modern Egyptian history, there was no soul-searching among Egypt’s activists and intellectuals. Some popular personalities including novelist Alaa Al-Aswany lauded the murder of over 800 pro-Morsi demonstrators at Rabaa. Others such as ElBaradei merely criticised the military’s tactics as excessive but took no responsibility for the role they played as the military’s civilian cheerleaders and enablers. Without popular support from within the liberal and revolutionary ranks that provided cover for Sisi’s brutality, the military could not have undertaken such measures so easily.

Though it may have stunned Sisi’s erstwhile supporters when his guns eventually turned on them, any student of history knows that violent military coups rarely fare well for their civilian supporters. Three years on from the events of that fateful summer day, Egypt’s jails are teeming with prisoners from across the ideological and political spectrum.

As should be clear to most Egyptians by now, the importance of having allowed Morsi to complete his term as president transcends its benefits to him personally or his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots. The remainder of his term would have undoubtedly been fraught with more questionable governance, bad policy decisions, and likely required continued confrontations with state institutions loyal to the old regime along with elements of the revolutionary camp. But no matter what he would have done, one would be hard pressed to argue that Morsi’s actions would have surpassed the horrors of Sisi’s Egypt.

As the Tunisians have come to realise, the endurance of the post-authoritarian transition, regardless of how burdened it may be with political dysfunction, economic uncertainty, and the sacrifice of key demands, remains critical for the establishment of democratic institutions and the rule of law in the long-term.

There is no guarantee that, absent the support of significant segments of the Egyptian public, Morsi would not have still been overthrown by remnants of the old regime and their foreign sponsors. However, the complicity of broad swathes of the revolutionary camp in the counter-revolution ensured that whatever fragile process existed in the post-Mubarak era would be destroyed without any possibility for its recovery.

To abandon that process, whatever its flaws, was to abandon the prospects for democracy in Egypt for the foreseeable future. Even as opposition to Sisi’s rule continues to mount, a better future will remain elusive until Egyptians learn the lessons of their recent past.

- Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of "Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat's Egypt". You can follow him on Twitter @anhistorian

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Cairo's Tahrir Square on 24 January, 2016, on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising (AFP).


This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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