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A backward step for Egyptian democracy

Protestors, liberals and Mubarak loyalists are united in their disaffection with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, but they overlook the defining feature of recent events

So much for democracy in Egypt. Barely a year after the most populous Arab nation’s first free elections, President Mohamed Morsi has been ousted by the military at the behest of the mob. Protesters thronging Tahrir Square – the nerve centre of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – greeted the news of Mr Morsi’s departure with similar jubilation. But while such celebrations were echoed across the country by liberals and Mubarak loyalists united in their disaffection with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, they overlook the defining feature of recent events. Whatever the failings of Mr Morsi, the military overthrow of an elected leader is still a coup d’état.

That the Islamist president’s 12 months in office were fraught with difficulty is not in dispute. Always an uncharismatic figure, Mr Morsi’s initial successes – brokering peace between Israel and Hamas, for example, or besting his generals’ attempts to hang onto power – were swiftly overshadowed by his many mistakes. What Egypt needed was a conciliator par excellence to reconcile the formidable array of powers ranged against him and knit together the country’s profound divisions. Instead, Mr Morsi hunkered down for a fight, losing many non-Islamist allies in the process. A series of poor political decisions followed, including an attempt to put presidential decisions above judicial review such as the appointment of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to positions across central and local government.

Such misjudgements weigh heavy in the balance against Mr Morsi. But the central challenge was – and remains – the economy. Had the toppled president been more effective in negotiating for global funds and in dealing with the long-term structural problems behind Egypt’s high unemployment and soaring prices, his unpopularity might not have so swiftly tipped into counter-revolution. It is a lesson that his successor would do well to bear in mind.

The question now, of course, is who that successor will be and how he will be installed. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, may characterise the military’s actions as responding to a call from the Egyptian masses that could not be ignored. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the country’s so-called “deep state” has simply taken the opportunity to reassert itself.

No effort is being spared to allay such fears, and the tens of millions who chose to protest against Mr Morsi’s incompetencies in the streets rather than the ballot box are so flushed with triumph that they are inclined to believe them. Not only were there fine words yesterday from Adli Mansour – as the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court was sworn in as interim head of state – he promised to “respect the constitution and law, and guard the people’s interests”. The military is also treading carefully, producing a “road map” setting out plans for a transitional technocratic government, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. But if actions speak louder than words then the detention of Mr Morsi, the arrest warrants for 300 Muslim Brotherhood members and the media clampdown carry an unmistakable message.

Meanwhile, the risk of violent clashes with Mr Morsi’s supporters, even civil war, cannot be ruled out. For the country that was the poster child of the Arab Spring, such developments are as disappointing as they are alarming. Nor is it enough to shrug them off as evidence that Arab countries have no aptitude for democracy. The desire for political and social freedom, and the economic benefits to which they are allied, is not the sole preserve of the West. But the path from autocracy to democracy is rarely a smooth one. And, for all the cheering and the fireworks, Egypt just took a step backwards.