Questions for Melani Cammett

Political unrest and quest for stability in Egypt

July 10, 2013  |  Media Contact: Courtney Coelho |  401-863-7287
Millions of Egyptians, unhappy with the country’s first democratically elected president, called for Mohamed Morsi to step down. When Morsi didn't meet protestors’ demands, the military forced him out of office, leaving the country once again on unstable political ground. Melani Cammett, associate professor of political science and Dupee Faculty Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, has recently returned from Lebanon. She spoke about the situation in Egypt with Courtney Coelho.

Melani Cammett“At this juncture, Morsi’s ouster also signals the relative decline of Qatar ... and the renewed importance of Saudi Arabia.”Melani Cammett
“At this juncture, Morsi’s ouster also signals the relative decline of Qatar ... and the renewed importance of Saudi Arabia.”
Morsi was elected to office just a year ago. Why was he ousted so quickly?

From early on in Egypt after the ouster of Mubarak, divisions emerged within Egyptian politics and society, largely centered on social and identity-based issues such as the role of religion in public life, the status of women, the treatment of minorities and so forth. In this climate, it was difficult for any political leader to reach a consensus on both the process of creating new political institutions and the nature and structure of these institutions. Pressing socioeconomic issues that were at the core of the revolution were sidelined.

Furthermore, Morsi and other politicians from the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, made some key blunders. Chief among these was their exclusionary approach to creating new political institutions, which effectively sidelined opposition elements who envisioned a more secular, liberal set of principles, among other factors. History shows that processes in which political actors manage to forge a basic consensus on the rule of the game are more likely to result in successful economic and political transition processes. Political deadlock prolonged the transition process in Egypt, exacerbating declining economic conditions. As a result, most Egyptians experienced worsening living conditions and were increasingly dissatisfied with their government, including some who initially voted for Morsi. For these reasons and more, millions of Egyptians — although precise numbers cannot be confirmed — took to the streets once again to push for change. Claiming that they represented the popular will, the army stepped in and ousted Morsi when he did not comply with the demands of many protestors to step down. The military has a long history in Egyptian politics and was a key institution backing the rule of Mubarak and his predecessors. Thus, for students of Egypt, this turn of events looks very familiar.

What type of leader is the military looking for?

The Egyptian military is somewhat constrained in its choice of a leader for Egypt. It must find one that is acceptable to multiple stakeholders and one that will give the appearance of civilian rule while helping to stabilize the country quickly. The military cannot simply impose any leader that it wishes because it has to gain the consent of key political groups that backed Morsi’s ouster, including the Islamist Nour Party, as well as its foreign patrons, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. When the Nour Party objected to the appointment of Mohammed El-Baradei as prime minister, several other candidates were considered until, most recently, Hazem Beblawi was appointed. Beblawi will enjoy the support of the West and international financial institutions given his long track record of promoting economic liberalization in the country.

What will it take to quell the unrest and bring some stability back to Egypt?

Stability in Egypt cannot come about until political groups from across the political spectrum reach a minimal consensus on new institutions, notably the constitution, electoral rules, and so forth. This has been a major obstacle for the last two years and will continue to pose a challenge, particularly because Egyptians have become even more mobilized politically since the revolution and “street politics” have become a norm. In addition, the conviction that policies will produce real, tangible improvements in people’s lives — and, ultimately, the experience of real improvements in living conditions — are essential to stability in Egypt. The two factors are intimately interrelated as political consensus among policymakers and elites is essential for economic recovery and development, and economic improvements helped to consolidate political stability.

Is Morsi’s ouster a setback or step forward in the transition toward democracy?

This is the subject of serious debate among scholars, policy experts, and activists. In my view, this is a real setback, regardless of what you think about Morsi and Islamists in general. Although Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party made serious errors and proved themselves to be inept at governing, particularly in the context of weak and transitional political institutions, the precedent that his ouster sets is damaging. It sends the message that political institutions are not meaningful and can be overturned if the “deep state” (in this case, the military and its international allies) disapproves of incumbents.

The coup — and, in my view, the events that led to his ouster clearly fit the definition of a coup — also shows that the military remains the ultimate force in Egyptian politics, constraining what political actors can and cannot do. Under the rule of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) following Mubarak’s ouster, many called for the withdrawal of the military from political life and yet, in this recent turn of events, welcomed the military’s role in ousting Morsi when they opposed his policies and ineffective rule. Even though it is far more daunting and protracted, it would have been much better to oust him through a peaceful process and to organize more effectively for upcoming elections, where the Freedom and Justice Party almost certainly would have lost support. Furthermore, more Islamists will now become convinced that they are not welcome in “democratic” politics and, as a result, may turn to extra-institutional forms of political mobilization to defend and push for their interests.

How will Morsi’s ouster affect Egypt’s relationship with other Middle Eastern countries? Will this have a ripple effect on other leadership, much like what happened during the Arab Spring in 2011?

Morsi’s ouster is the number one topic across the region and is shaping the calculations and concerns of political actors in other Arab countries. This effect is most visible in Tunisia, where the ruling Islamist al-Nahdha party has issued numerous communiqués criticizing the ouster but, at the same time, has been careful to distance itself from the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party and to emphasize its allegedly more consensual approach to governance. Some of Al-Nahdha’s opponents, however, have been inspired by the events in Egypt to demand the resignation of the government. Yet the opposition in Tunisia is more divided on this issue, and events are likely to play out differently there. Even in countries such as Lebanon, which has a radically different political structure and history, the unfolding events in Egypt are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Egypt is often called “um ad-dunya” or “mother of the world” and is at the center of Arab regional politics. Indeed, the crisis in Egypt reveals a lot about the shifting regional balance of power, with implications for developments across diverse Arab countries.

At this juncture, Morsi’s ouster also signals the relative decline of Qatar, which had backed the Freedom and Justice Party and was promoting an aggressive foreign policy across the region, and the renewed importance of Saudi Arabia, which has played a counter-revolutionary role since the Arab uprisings began and had backed the Nour Party over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This has important ramifications for other groups across the region, including in Syria, where Qatar has backed the anti-government rebels most aggressively.

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