What took the Egyptian Army so long?

When Mohamed Morsi won the election to become Egypt’s president a year ago, perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Egyptian Army allowed him to take the reins of power.

After all, it was the army that had shepherded the coup that had deposed Hosni Mubarak a year and a half earlier when it chose to side with the people over the autocratic president in February 2011, and army generals had ruled the country ever since. They clearly were not pleased that the winning candidate in the presidential election was from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that represented the most popular alternative to the secular-led army.

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So when Morsi was installed as president on June 30, 2012, it wasn’t clear whether the new president would be allowed to exercise the powers of his office, or what those powers were.

Morsi did not tread cautiously. Rather than try to avoid antagonizing the generals, Morsi in one of his first acts of office reconvened parliament, which the generals had dissolved three weeks earlier. Most members of parliament hailed from Islamist parties allied with Morsi.

The next month, in August, Morsi went further, firing the army’s top leaders, including Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, the commander of Egypt’s army and the man who effectively led the country after Mubarak’s ouster. Morsi also canceled the constitutional declaration that had stripped much of the power from the office of president.

More was to come. In November, Morsi made his most audacious move yet, granting himself unlimited powers and canceling any judicial oversight of his actions – essentially declaring that he was above the law. In an instant, Morsi had antagonized his most important constituency, and the one from which he had derived his power: the Egyptian people.

Protests began. A leading opponent of the regime, former IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, said Morsi had “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh.”

Even though Morsi backtracked in December, canceling most of his November decrees, the protests persisted on and off. With Egypt’s economy sputtering, discontent grew. Even the Islamists were unhappy with Morsi for treading a too-moderate line on their bread-and-butter issues.

Things came to a head with the summer heat, as Egyptians faced growing power shortages and gas lines. Morsi was accused of failing to meet the country’s basic needs. The protests gained steam. All of a sudden, at the end of June, there were tens of thousands of protesters filling Tahrir Square again. Morsi had lost the people.

The army, sensing weakness, encouraged Morsi’s opponents. While protesters set fire to the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, the army was nowhere to be seen. When the army did make a show of force, it was in support of the protesters, sending helicopters over Tahrir Square to fly the Egyptian flag.

Now, it seems, Morsi is destined for the same fate as Mubarak. For the second time in three years, the army appears to be backing protesters to depose a president. The difference this time is that Morsi was popularly elected.

What this means for Egyptian democracy, and the country’s future, is as opaque as ever.

Uriel Heilman is JTA’s managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA’s editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has served as JTA’s news editor and worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.

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