The skies over Cairo were filled with celebratory fireworks as Egypt’s military officers removed president Mohammed Morsi, suspended the Islamic Constitution and installed an interim government presided over by a senior jurist. But these fireworks could be succeeded by a series of new fireworks that are distant from celebration.
At the moment, secularists are rejoicing. Egyptian security forces arrested at least 38 senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the chief of the political party. From the outset of Morsi’s government, military officials were dubious about the Muslim Brotherhood and its aims. However, military officials welcomed Morsi’s inauguration as an exit from accountability for a failing economy.
Under the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, the economy has continued to plummet, unemployment rose to unprecedented heights, fuel shortages afflict every major city and even food is now in short supply. Instead of attempting to address these issues, Morsi spoke at a mass rally calling for a jihad in Syria. The question that remains is whether liberals, revolutionaries, secularists in alliance with the military can mitigate national woe any more effectively than the Morsi government. Moreover, the Egyptian military has been an institution insulated from the rule of law with many officers deeply involved in economic matters. Nonetheless, it is the only cohesive institution in the country, notwithstanding public outrage in the past over military privileges.
This coup d’ etat, which no one wants to describe as a coup, brings to the fore the misguided policy perspective of the Obama administration. With the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, the State Department rushed headlong into a marriage with the Morsi government. Morsi was invited to the White House, and despite provocative commentary, was described as “a statesman.” In fact, it was believed that Morsi, as representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a model for stability in North Africa. Not only did Hilary Clinton, as Secretary of State, embrace the Brotherhood, but she noted it could have a salutary influence in the region.
To convince Americans of this benign Muslim Brotherhood face, the State Department launched a charm campaign for Brotherhood representatives who, in retrospect, were told to sound as if they were Jeffersonian democrats. It is therefore not surprising that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is the target of the demonstrators. She was the lightning rod for a U.S. policy that embraced President Morsi. She is also the symbol of what critics would describe as America’s “meddlesome role” in Egyptian affairs.
As the dust settles, several conditions are transparently obvious. There isn’t a plan for the improvement of desperate economic conditions other than a plea for foreign assistance. Despite the celebratory mood, Egypt does not possess the infrastructure for democratic institutions. The once hated military is the only national institution that can maintain stability. Islamists may be in retreat, but they are still a constituency with which to contend. A civil war is a distinct possibility. Morsi was a hapless president, but the army’s leadership of the moment could easily descend into despair as Egyptian history would suggest.
The mood in Tahir Square in Cairo does represent hope even in an environment of flawed politics. Yet only a year ago, hope was also in the air in the very same Square. Many Egyptians at that time thought ossified institutions should be challenged, even if it meant embracing the Muslim Brotherhood. But it wasn’t long before despair set in. Well, hope as the harbinger of change is with Egyptians again. However, in the background is the voice of realism saying loud and clear that demonstrations are not the same as governance. Egypt has intractable problems that must be addressed. If not, Tahir Square could be filled with angry voices a year from now.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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