Are we headed towards another Algeria?
Following the recent widespread protests against President Morsi’s Islamist government in Egypt, the Army moved in on Wednesday 3 June 2013 to depose him, at the same time suspending the Constitution and designating a temporary Head of State. In his announcement, the Army Chief, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, also called for early presidential and parliamentary elections, a panel to review the Constitution and a national reconciliation committee that would also include youth movements.
Interestingly, Mohamed el Baradai, the former head of the UN International Atomic Enegy Agency, was designated by opposition groups as their representative in discussions with the Army. President Morsi, under arrest at a military compound, has refused to recognise the move and still regards himself as the legitimate President of Egypt, but has urged his followers to protest peacefully.
The demonstrations against Mr Morsi had been going on for a few weeks but intensified recently when thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to demonstrate against him. On Sunday 30 June, huge demonstrations were held in cities around Egypt, including Alexandria, Suez and Port Said. On Monday 1 July, protestors set fire to the headquarters of Islamic Brotherhood, the party of President Morsi, and looted it; some ministers resigned from his government. The Army reacted by giving President Morsi 48 hours to come to some understanding with the protestors or face an “imposed solution”. President Morsi rebuffed that unsolicited advice. On Wednesday 3 June, the army made good on their promise and seized power.
The Army’s action has been greeted with spectacular jubilation in Cairo and cities around Egypt. Many Egyptians are unhappy that the foreign media are referring to the move as a “coup” as, according to them, the Army has only moved in to support popular demand.
President Morsi was elected in an election widely regarded as democratic only last year, but his administration was seen by many as favouring the positions of his party, the Islamic Brotherhood. The Constitution under which he was elected, itself largely written by his supporters even though approved by a referendum, was not universally welcomed as some believed that it did not include sufficient guarantees for freedom of expression and women’s rights. In the months following his election, Mr Morsi has become increasingly unpopular.
His party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious organisation, was founded 85 years ago but remained banned for most of its existence. However, it was, and remains, a well-organised party with branches throughout Egypt and other Middle East countries. The overthrow of President Mubarak by popular uprising in 2011 was followed by the removal of restrictions on all political formations. The Brotherhood seized the opportunity to participate in the elections that followed, forming a civic party by the name of Freedom and Justice Party to do so, presenting Mr Mohamed Morsi as its candidate. The other groups (there was no party as such) were not organised and did not stand a chance. Naturally Mr Morsi became president, with a 52% score at the run-off. Within months even many who had voted for him to get rid of the Mubarak regime grew disenchanted with him. The discontent led to the recent protests that culminated in his ouster this week.
Some violence has already taken place. It is doubtful that the supporters of Mr Morsi are going to take this lying down, in spite of his exhortation for them not to engage in violence. This case has some parallels with what happened in Algeria in the nineties. There the Islamic Salvation Front won the elections but were not allowed to take power by the military. What followed was one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has known. The total number of deaths is put at above 200,000 by some, most of them civilians. The methods employed were particularly gruesome (slitting of the throat, for instance.) The military in Egypt would be well advised to include the Muslim Brotherhood in their negotiations to ensure that their points of view are also taken into account to the extent it can without sacrificing the basic principles of democracy. God forbid that the Algerian scenario repeats itself.
The overthrow of an elected government accompanied by popular applause brings to mind the coup staged by General Musharraf against the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan in 1999. Today, Mr Sharif is back in as Prime Minister, and General Musharraf, after a long stint as dictator, is behind bars awaiting trial for treason. But there are some important differences between the two cases.
In Egypt, military intervention has followed popular demand for their involvement. In 1999, the coup in Pakistan came following the Prime Minister’s attempt to oust the Army Chief; the population at large were not involved. The applause that followed in that case was low key, and resulted more from the actions of the political rivals of Mr Sharif. Even so, the Generals in Pakistan will be watching the events in Egypt closely to learn from them. So too should Mr Sharif, for his own good. When one comes to think of it, so also should Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey.
* Published in print edition on 5 July 2013