(This analysis was also published in The Conversation.)
The military coup in Egypt that ended the reign of the country’s first democratically elected president was, in part, triggered by increasingly large protests of Egyptians who were deeply dissatisfied with the policies of the president, Mohamed Morsi.
This dissatisfaction has a wide range of causes and has been carried by a patchwork of opposition groups mobilising their followers on the basis of a similar mixture of popular concerns from the ongoing and deepening economic crisis to resentment over the attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to mould Egypt into an Islamic system.
There is no question that Morsi’s government has acted with astonishing ineptitude over the past year on economic issues and has been uncompromising in its pursuit of an Islamic agenda. That said, Morsi’s presidency arose from a democratic political process. He prevailed in both rounds of the presidential elections in May and June 2012, albeit with a low turnout (less than 50% in the first round, just over 50% in the run-off) and a small majority (51.7% in the second round). Earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (whose presidential candidate Morsi was) had won most seats in parliamentary elections.
These two elections were followed by the drafting of a new constitution by a constituent assembly consequently dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. The constitution, approved in a popular referendum by over 60% of participating voters in December 2012 created a strong president-led executive, however, with a prime minister and a government that need to rely on a majority in parliament. The crucial powers that the president has under the Egyptian constitution of 2012 extend to defence, national security, and foreign policy, as well as the appointment of all civil and military personnel.
Importantly, however, and further inflaming an already tense situation, Morsi had given himself vast executive and legislative powers in a decree in November 2012, even before a draft of the constitution was published. This further infuriated the opposition to Morsi who called for a boycott of the referendum, resulting in a low turnout of only just under one-third of eligible voters.
Morsi, thus, faced a deeply divided country, while the army and large parts of the civil service and judicial system remained, if not loyal to the old regime, opposed to Morsi’s agenda of change. This opposition, having seen a first peak in response to Morsi’s controversial decree of November 2012, retained significant momentum throughout the following months and gathered both pace and supporters. As a consequence, Morsi never fully controlled the power centres of the state. His inability and unwillingness to offer concessions and make compromises eventually precipitated his downfall amid wide-spread public protests.
President’s arrest unconstitutional
Morsi’s arrest by the army may be legitimate in the eyes of his opponents, but it remains an unconstitutional act. The intensity of the protests against Morsi, in light of his very slim majority in the presidential elections, however, raises another question. Can country as deeply divided as Egypt be effectively governed with the kind of presidential system that brought Morsi to power?
This is a long-standing and on-going debate in political science, and one that is of great relevance beyond Egypt. Over the last few years alone, contested presidential elections in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Ivory Coast have led to significant violence. This is not overly surprising, given that in presidential systems the winner of the electoral contest gains enormous political power.
With that power often comes control over vital economic assets to reward the president’s supporters and to perpetuate systems of clientelism and patronage. This tends to sustain the very same divisions in societies that destabilise political systems to the brink of civil war (and beyond).
When winner takes all
The problem is not that presidential systems are winner-takes-all situations, this can, and does, also happen in Westminster-style parliamentary systems. The problem arises if the winner does indeed take it all and is unwilling to reach out beyond his or her core constituency and pushes through an agenda that reflects only the interests of one particular section of society, to the detriment of the rest.
This is what happened in Egypt in a situation in which not only the political hopes of many of those who risked their lives to oust Mubarak were disappointed, but where some who initially supported Morsi saw their living standards rapidly decline. With violence between pro- and anti-Morsi forces gradually escalating, the army’s suspension of the constitution may have been the only way to avoid further bloodshed.
Military coups are not a means of democratic politics, but democratic politics in societies as deeply divided as Egypt may not be possible with the kind of exclusive institutions and uncompromising political leaders that the country currently has. Temporarily suspending the constitution is a stop-gap measure that can work in the short-term. What Egypt may also need in the long-term is a more inclusive set of political institutions and leaders that put the interests of the country as a whole above their own.