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Democratic coup?

Push back the army and reach out to the Islamic milieu

7. July 2013
by Wilhelm Langthaler

The Muslim Brotherhood has gone too far. They were even unable to read the recent mass movement as a sign that their own influence was waning and some kind of compromise was necessary. Eventually the army intervened in form of a soft coup in order to avoid a further escalation and to stop the popular mass movement before it gets out of hand.

Success of the Tahrir

Everybody was surprised by the extraordinary momentum of the mass protests. Millions took to the streets across the entire county decisively tipping the relationship of forces within just a few days. This general mobilisation reached far beyond the original Tahrir milieu. (It suffices to watch the pictures of the numerous women with headscarves among the anti-Morsi camp to grasp how far the protest entered into the Islamic cultural environment.) Eventually the pressure became that big that the generals felt obliged to intervene.

Failure of the Muslim Brothers

On the other side of the medal stands the political failure of the Ikhwan, a failure whose extent has also surprised people. The Muslim Brothers proved unable to fulfil the democratic and social aspirations of the broad masses as expressed after the demise of Mubarak. Worse, they proved unable to read the growing scepticism and later rejection among large parts of the population which disabled them to react appropriately. They maintained a dogmatic exclusive claim on representation and power rendering any type of compromise impossible (much to the pleasure of the other side who wanted things to come this way).

The Muslim Brothers’ claim on leadership is built on two pillars, on an Islamic one and a democratic one: as Egypt was an Islamic country and they were the principle Islamic force they would be entitled to lead the nation and even the Ummah, the global community of Sunni Muslims. This would be justified by the first democratic elections in the history of the country.

The past year saw, however, a rapid erosion of consensus which ultimately reached into the Islamic and even Islamist milieu. The huge political prestige acquired in decades of opposition has been spent and worn out within record time. Thus the Ikhwan’s claim gradually turned hollow as they lost legitimacy due to their incredible stubbornness regarding compromise.

The coup which toppled their president is the most humiliating defeat in the Brotherhood’s history and deals a hard blow on them and their claim to leadership.

Their future development strongly depends on the line to be adopted reacting to the defeat. If they chose to insist on the legitimacy of their leadership but pragmatically subordinate to the new relationship of forces they might succeed to use future crisis of the new regime which will arrive rather sooner than later. Their history would suggest such a choice which constitutes also their historic split with Jihadism namely the mother of Jihad: the Jamaa al-Islamiyya. On the other hand given the global and regional conflicts the political pressure from the Jihadi milieu will be strong pushing many into the latter’s ranks. This is also due to the fact that the Jihadis have been substantially loyal to the Muslim Brothers’ rule and refrained so far from armed struggle marginalising the most radical Takriris. In case the Brothers decide to move closer towards Jihadism, the army will enjoy the most favourable of political conditions to crush them.

However, to speak of the end of political Islam, as the Syrian president Assed has fantasized, is a colossal misreading of history. Not even the Brotherhood has come to its end. To lose a battle does not mean to have lost the war. (One should remember in which way the army had lost credit which was restored to a large extent within just one year.) Egypt’s society is in a very deep crisis and amid historic convulsions which can provoke swift turns. The imminent economic disaster plays the role of a catalyst.

Army as Bonaparte

The army intervention is, however, not for free. It is connected with the political rehabilitation of the military which only one year ago was the main enemy of the popular movement and also in conflict to the Islamists.

With the army also the Mubarakists are reappearing who had taken refuge within the state apparatus and the managerial caste. That does not mean that these people are unchangeable – rebellions and revolutions usually change people. But a milieu of them still continues to exist around the army.

It is an important fact that the generals tried to garner the broadest possible support for their coup. When the leading general Sisi announced the deposition of Mursi, the following people were present and therefore informed and in consent: Mohamed el-Baradei, a representative of the Tamarod coalition which had mobilized for the anti-Mursi mass protests, the sheikh of the al-Azhar university, the leading institution of Sunni Islam, the Coptic pope and even a representative of the Salafi Noor party.

Not only therefore the expression “soft coup” seems appropriate. It is also a matter of fact that the army repeatedly called upon the Muslim Brothers to engineer a compromise. So they have been warned and they have had the possibility to give in. But the Ikhwan refused.

On the other hand it is also true that there is a de-facto bloc between the army, the National Salvation Front and even the Tahrir movement.

International isolation

It is astonishing and surprising how fast the Muslim Brotherhood was dropped internationally. Saudi Arabia and the UAE welcomed the coup. In this way they got rid of a dangerous Islamic rival. For the new emir of Qatar it was the first test indicating a U-turn: back to Riyadh’s line. The west kept a low profile but de facto accepted the coup which would not have been possible without their tacit consent. Of the major powers only Turkey protested but kept the door open by demanding new elections. Tunisia’s condemnation actually got only very small weight.

One year ago the Muslim Brothers were regarded as a new Islamist International that the US had to find an arrangement with. But after they lost the central country of Egypt their star is about to sink. The turn on the Nile will have its effect on the Syrian civil war as well.

Changed triangle relationship

The power structures in Egypt can be conceived as an evolving triangle relationship consisting of three blocs. These blocs, however, cannot be sharply defined as there are shades and transitions. There is a) the old regime—army—secularists, b) Islamists, c) the Tahrir democrats. The toppling of Mubarak was undertaken by the Tahrir with the Islamists as junior partner gradually acquiring strength. After Mubarak’s fall the weakened regime co-opted the Islamists against the Tahrir. When the pressure became too strong the Islamists took over with the top military’s consent. But also this constellation lasted only for one year. Now the army pushed the Islamist aside coalescing with the Tahrir. It is not given who will take the lead. The game remains open.

The triangle metaphor is a strong simplification as the blocs are not homogeneous, they are changing and reflect in a complicated and distorted way also diverging social interests, all of which is not displayed by this model. What it does show is that these social, political and cultural blocs do have a certain stability and persistence beyond short political cycles.


In a different reading the coup can also be regarded as helping the Muslim Brothers to survive politically. Had they continued to keep exclusive power the decomposition of their base would have further accelerated. Eventually that could have dealt the death blow to them. Now they escaped this fate and can cultivate the narrative of the army coup helped by old regime, the secularists and Washington against democratically legitimised Islam. This constitutes a powerful shield of defence even more within a hermetically closed type of thought.

The Tahrir is lacking the Islamic component (although there have been some attempts). Only containing such a current the question of legitimacy of power can be posed without automatically evoking a religious dimension. Otherwise it will be put as a struggle between Islam and its enemies. This is the way the Muslim Brothers and their allies try to defend themselves. Additionally they employ the argument of the elections. The conditions of the past elections can be disputed as the Tahrir has been doing ever since. But what remains is that they were the first elections deserving this name despite all their shortcomings. Eventually the trump card of the cultural struggle held by the Islamists always wins. As long as the Tahrir does not take this into account it will not be able to win without becoming hostage of the generals.

This is actually the most important weakness of the Tahrir lending the army and the old elites a decisive advantage over them. It is at the same time a distorted and culturally superimposed question of class. The Islamists wield powerful support within the lowest social strata. Without at least a part of them let alone against them a democratic revolutionary project cannot advance. It is not about to win the hard core of Islamism for social revolution but a significant part of their constituencies for whom Islam remains their overarching identity. This consequently means also to deal with their leaderships.

On the other hand one should not forget that the army and the milieu of the old regime, though the latter politically decomposed and remains without unified leadership, do represent the bulk of the capitalist elites linked to the west and responsible for the historic catastrophe the county finds itself in. They nevertheless could maintain a certain mass following which they could recuperate also thanks to the tremendous mistakes of the Ikhwan.

Transition government and constituent assembly

Now the struggle for the leadership of the revolutionary process has again been opened. And again the main enemy is the army and the remnants of the old regime despite their honeymoon with the Tahrir which will be short-lived. The central question is the formation of a transitional government which will be charged with organising elections. From a revolutionary democratic point of view the idea of a constituent assembly elected by popular vote should become a key slogan.

The imminent transitional government should be based on the popular movement. The representatives of the old regime and the social elites should be pushed aside. The army itself seems to have learned from the negative experience of the SCAF and will try to pull the strings from behind the scene. The economy they command anyway. The big task is to free the government from this suffocating embrace. This on its turn needs the détente with the Islamists (or their more democratic and liberal wing) by ending the repression against them, liberating their leaders and offering them a role within the caretaker government. Otherwise the army will remain in the role of the Bonaparte between the conflicting parties.

The opposite programme could be the adoption of the Salvation Front by the army and the elites. Baradei, Mousa and also Sabahi could lend their mass base to a modernised regime of the elites under the aegis of secularism. A small circle of technocrats would draft a constitution under the supervision of the army as they already did with the suspended Islamist constitution. Such a capitalist stabilisation would certainly enjoy the necessary consent by Washington.

An important tool against such a scenario could be a constituent assembly selected by popular vote as the very first step. In this way the forces of the old regime and the social elites might be marginalised and the deep rift with Islamism softened. Proportional elections for a constituent assembly would guarantee the Islamists their due share and probably a kind of blocking minority. In this way the Islamist point on legitimacy can be overcome. The conditions for an inclusive democratic constituent process are favourable as long as the popular democratic movement maintains a protagonist role.

July 5, 2013