Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood toppled by army coup

Might is right: Protesters celebrate Morsi’s fall as armoured vehicles patrol the streets © Getty Images

Egypt is back under military rule today after a dramatic showdown between army leaders and the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. Have generals saved the state, or doomed democracy?

Almost exactly a year has passed since Mohammed Morsi won a landslide vote to become the first democratically elected President of Egypt. Today, Egyptians are hoping he will not also turn out to be the last. This week, after dramatic scenes on the streets of Cairo, Morsi was deposed and placed under arrest by the country’s armed forces. Army leaders say they were carrying out the will of the people. Members of Morsi’s faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, say that their democratic government has been toppled by a military coup.

Neither side is exactly wrong. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was an outlawed organisation that provided the only real opposition to Egypt’s corrupt old regime. Then, in 2011, the dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown by a popular revolt. The Muslim Brothers stepped into the power vacuum, winning free and fair elections. They promised a new, ‘Islamist’, style of government – that the corruption of the old days would be replaced by religious morality and strict adherence to Islamic law. This promise has made the Muslim Brothers wildly popular in Egypt’s poorer and more traditional provinces.

But in his year in power, Morsi managed to alienate a huge number of Egyptians. The middle classes have suffered as Egypt’s economy collapsed. The young urban liberals who inspired the 2011 revolution hate the conservatism of religious rule. Judges and lawyers hated Morsi’s attempts to monopolise power.

The rich, who did well out of the old regime, see the Muslim Brotherhood as the party of the illiterate mob. And the police, who spent half a century persecuting and torturing Muslim Brothers, hated to see them in charge of the nation.

In the last two weeks, anger against Morsi had reached boiling point. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo, demanding that Morsi, like Mubarak before him, surrender power. So when, on Wednesday, the army made its move, removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power and placing Morsi under arrest, they could plausibly claim to be carrying out the popular will.

A coup too far

Many of Egypt’s liberals, and some people in the West, are celebrating. Morsi’s government was repressive, incompetent and bullying. He had lost popular support. Since he refused to go quietly, someone had to give him a push.

There are two responses to this. Some doubt the army’s good intentions. The generals, they say, profited under the old Mubarak regime. They pretend to fulfill the will of the people but in fact intend to undo the 2011 revolution.

Others think the army means well but is wrong anyway. Everyone wants to get rid of failed governments, but democracy means doing so with votes, not the barrel of a gun.

You Decide

  1. Can a military coup ever be a good thing?
  2. If you had to choose, would you rather be ruled by a religious leader or a military one?

Activities

  1. What makes a government legitimate? Write down a one sentence answer, then compare notes with the rest of the class.
  2. Write a political statement either on behalf of the army or on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to convince Egyptians that you have rights on your side.

Some People Say...

“Egypt is not ready to be a democracy.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m glad there are no military coups where I live!
Lucky you! Your country has solved perhaps the most difficult problem in politics.
Really?
Almost all societies have a military. Often, the leaders of that military have political opinions. Since they also have command of several tens of thousands of heavily armed men, what is to stop those leaders getting their own way? It takes a strong legal and political framework to keep generals from simply taking over.
Has that been a problem everywhere?
Absolutely. Take Britain, for example. Before they accumulated centuries of tradition, the knights and dukes who ruled Medieval England were just like the soldiers and generals of today. William I, distant ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, was really just a Viking warlord wearing a crown.

Word Watch

Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a pan-Islamic organisation with a presence across the Middle East and beyond. In Egypt, the organisation was outlawed by Hosni Mubarak. Many of its leaders were arrested and persecuted, but the Muslim Brothers held on in the shadows. When Mubarak was ousted in 2011, they emerged as Egypt’s most organised political force.
Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak was a high-ranking officer in the Egyptian air force before he took power in 1981. He ruled as a dictator for thirty years. Although he was removed in 2011 and is now very ill and facing criminal charges, many of his old allies remain influential, especially within the police and intelligence services. They may hope to take power again.
The barrel of a gun
A gloomy precedent for this military coup can be found in Algeria, where in 1991 a democratically elected Islamist government was overthrown by a secular military establishment. The Islamists abandoned politics and took up arms. Algeria suffered a long and bloody civil war.