Despite the angry reaction from Egyptians, I would argue that the coup/not-a-coup debate can be beneficial. Constant vigilance is now crucial if this transitional period is to avoid the pitfalls of the first. Analysis from those outside the immediate context, though it might not be what Egyptians want to hear or fully reflect the situation on the ground, can act as a check and a form of pressure on those now power in Cairo to get this right. Even those who wholeheartedly support the actions of the Tamarrod campaign and the army have to acknowledge that Mursi’s removal has created an explosive situation.
I have just spent two days with international scholars of Middle East politics, foreign policy and democratization processes. As academics, it is hard to get around the fact that, technically speaking, what happened was a coup. Unlike Mubarak, Mursi refused to resign in response to popular pressure and in an attempt to diffuse the situation the army intervened to remove Mursi from power by force, thereby disrupting the democratic process.
Yet for those millions who have come to see Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood as taking Egypt precariously close to becoming a failed state, last week was about taking back a stalled revolution that many felt was hijacked by various forces, the Brotherhood in particular. The criticism that the protests have overthrown democracy and deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president is met with derision by many Egyptians.
To large numbers of Egyptians, it had seemed that Mursi had just replaced Mubarak and that elections had become once more a veneer of democracy over a non-inclusive system dominated by one party. They argue that Mursi’s election was not free and fair, and that he failed to fulfill his part of the democratic bargain when he began to gather power to himself and the Muslim Brotherhood and when he repeatedly proved himself incapable of managing Egypt’s transition to a true democracy.
There is a difficult dilemma here. If we focus on implementing a democratization process as the main goal, what has happened in Egypt sets a dangerous precedent and is a major setback for Egypt’s democratic journey. Yet many of those who joined the protests on June 30 did so because they believed it was necessary to save Egypt in order to be truly democratic in the future. The hope is that this short-term sacrifice will bring long-term benefits.
Technically speaking, a coup d’état occurs when a government is deposed suddenly and by force, often by another section of the state apparatus—typically, though not exclusively, the military. Yet despite America’s clear frustration with Mursi’s removal, official statements have avoided calling this a coup. Clearly “coup” is loaded term, with connotations of violence and illegitimacy; many commentators quickly began to draw parallels with Algeria in 1991, with all the bloody consequences that resulted from that military intervention there to remove elected Islamists from power. America will want to avoid any such conflation of fears about Egypt’s stability. But, more importantly, if America took the position that this was a coup, Washington would be legally constrained from sending its annual aid package of USD 1.3 billion to the Egyptian military—and America needs to maintain good relations with the army now more than ever.
Whether this shift in power is labeled a coup or a revolution, the priority now—as it was under Mursi—is to support Egyptians in the transition to democracy. But a transition to democracy does not just mean establishing institutions and holding elections; more importantly, it is about supporting a democratic culture that is inclusive, representative and accountable to the people.
The challenge for the new leadership, in addition to managing the inevitable violence, is to be inclusive and transparent. Egypt should be protected from the excesses of any single ideology or party while representing everyone. This is a colossal challenge and it should be prioritized as the focus of local and international debate. The reality of democratic transition is inevitably messier than the theory.