Many Arabs, thirsty for real change, look at the events of the Arab Spring positively. Liberal, secular, conservative, and ultraconservative groups and individuals in the countries transformed by the Arab Spring who supported the overthrow of the old guard agree that these revolutions were necessary. They disagree on the post-revolution arrangement. The Arab Spring 2.0 that took place in Egypt on June 30th is a good example of the disagreement between former allies about the future of the new Arab World. Analysts and observers of Middle East affairs are trying to make sense out of something that does not operate according to common sense. All that can be done is a sound analysis of the facts. I have received several inquiries for comments about the events in Egypt. A summary of these comments might provide some legal and historical context.
1. Did the Egyptian military orchestrate a military coup against the “legitimate” president Mohamed Morsi?
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood believe that the military staged a military coup against the legitimacy (shar`iyya). Morsi made that clear in his last speech when he repeated the word “shar`iyya” about 100 times in a 21-minute address. The fact of the matter is that millions of Egyptians came to the streets and squares on June 30 demanding that he resigns because he failed to achieve the goals of the revolution. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood responded by calling on their supporters to come down to the street as well instead of addressing the demands of the protesters. The military sided with the June 30th protest movement which was seen as a continuation of the 2011 revolutioners. In other words, if millions of Egyptians did not rebel against Morsi, the military would not have taken the steps it had taken. The question then becomes, why did so many Egyptians rebel against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood?
2. If Morsi is the legitimate president, could protesters ask for his resignation?
First, let’s look at it from the point of view of classical Islamic institutions--since Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood subscribe to that ideology. In Islamic law (the foundation of the Brotherhood platform), political legitimacy is a contract. In fact, the act of electing/selecting a political leader in pre-modern Islamic societies is called bay`ah-a derivative of the word that means selling/buying. Contracts in Islamic law come with built-in clause called khiayar (option), which deals with cases of breach of contract. Political legitimacy, therefore, being a form of contractual arrangement, leaves room for forcing out a political leader.
Historically, the terms of political legitimacy in Islam were spelled out during the selection of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Upon taking over, he declared the following: “You have elected me, and I am not necessarily better than you. Obey me as long as I obeyed God. If I disobeyed God, then there is no obligation upon you to obey me.” These terms were the guiding principles of the so-called righteously guided caliphs during the formative period of Islamic institutions and beyond. It was the violation of these terms that legitimized the civil wars and armed uprisings during that era. If a legitimate caliph violated what is seen as the terms of a contract, Islamic law allowed for his removal, first by asking for his resignation, and if he refuses, then by force—as was the case during the rule of the third caliph `Uthman. The legal precedent in Islamic law is there. In some cases, it was not just the case of some marginalized minority rebelling against the elite. Member of the ruling elite rose up militarily against legitimate caliphs. The widow of the Prophet Muhammad, `A’ishah, led a rebellion against the legitimate caliph, Ali. These are historical facts.
Second, in modern times, there are institutional paths that allow the “people” to remove a democratically elected leader if circumstances warrant it. For example, in the United States, Congress acts on behalf of the people to impeach a president.
In other words, electoral legitimacy is not a carte blanche that would allow an elected leader to act above and beyond the law. Electoral legitimacy is not absolute. The question, then, is not about whether it is legitimate to overthrow Morsi, rather, if he had committed acts that warrant his removal. That is the substantive question. Some facts show that it is his own actions and inaction that may have facilitated his removal by the masses—aided by the military.
The revolution was about changing political system. He was supposed to implement the demands of the revolution and that included building new governing institutions. He did not act. Instead, he decided to consolidate power by not holding parliamentarian elections after the cancellation of the first one on constitutional grounds. That same institution that was supposed to check his powers, parliament, could have saved his presidency and he has only himself to blame. It would have been harder for the street and the military to overthrow him had acted quickly and held fair parliamentarian elections. It would have been harder for them to quash two elected institutions not just one.
3. Is the removal of Morsi a repeat of scenario of Algeria and a continuation of a trend whereby the secular elite deprives Islamists from gaining power through democratic means?
There was no question that the Algerian military acted without authority and without reason (other than fear of Islamists) when it nullified the results of the first round of elections and cancelled subsequent ones. But the events in Egypt are very different. Indeed Egyptian military brass does not like the Brotherhood in charge and they have done all they could to keep them from taking over. But when members of the Brotherhood and the Salafis were elected, the military accepted the results. When the Brotherhood fielded presidential candidates, despite its leaders’ promises not to do so, and won the presidency, the military did not stage a coup. After a year in power, it was clear that the Brotherhood, like the military before it, was interested in consolidating power and writing the rules in a way that will exclude their competitors and serve their own interests. That did not gain them any friends in the military.
Morsi, as he admitted himself, committed many mistakes in one year. He governed erratically and did not solve any of the serious problems his country faced. Increasingly, he behaved like a president for those who elected him, not of all Egyptians. Consequently many Egyptians, more than 22 million of them, felt that he did not achieve any of the goals of the revolution and they rose up against him. These protesters found allies in the military and security forces—the very same institutions Morsi coaxed in order to buy their loyalty as he focused on clipping the wings of judges, journalists, NGO activists, and leaders of other civil society institutions. It is clear that without the massive protest, the military would not have overthrown an elected leader. The military leaders contend that they took the side of the people.
4. Is the June 30th protest representative majority of the Egyptian people?
There is no way to know for sure. But it is a fact that a significant segment of the Egyptian people was not happy with Morsi’s decisions and Morsi’s performance. Some Egyptians felt that he violated the law and risked the lives of Egyptian citizens. But revolutions are hardly about majority’s wishes. Most revolutions succeeded with less than ten percent popular support. In politics, it is the nature of the grievances that is more important than popular support.
One should not forget that only 51% of 51% of the Egyptians voted for Morsi. That low turnout is not the kind of mandate that would allow a president to govern without checks. More Algerian voters voted in 1991 (60.07%) and even more Tunisian voters (90%) cast ballots than Egyptians, in terms of voters turnout.
In the end, two key events that are hardly mentioned in the media but must be seen as the most significant moments that convinced many Egyptians that Morsi (or the Brotherhood) is not ready to govern. These two events solidified the perception that Morsi is a sectarian president whose main goal is to serve the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood even if that risked hurting Egyptian citizens. The first event is his participation in gathering of ultra-conservative religious figures who justified the war in Syria on sectarian grounds. Speeches from that event, along with fatwas from the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yousef Qaradawi, amplified sectarian strife and charged an already tense situation. Many Egyptians saw his participation in that program as tacit approval of the acts and beliefs of religious fanatics. The second event, the gruesome murder and desecration of the bodies of Egyptian citizens, left a sense of shame and disgust in all Egyptians who saw those images of Egyptians being beaten, killed, and dragged in the streets simply because they were Shi`a. Morsi’s casual condemnation (via a presidential press release) of the barbaric act revealed his sectarian bias and lack of respect for human dignity. That alone is a legitimate cause for impeachment.
5. What will happen now?
The worst case scenario is for the Muslim Brotherhood to rely on their supporters to resist the sacking of Morsi. The revolution was not about bringing them to power. The revolution was about better governance and more respect for the dignity of all Egyptians. Bringing Morsi back to power cannot be seen as a fulfillment of revolutionary aspirations. If they insist on fighting to bring Morsi back to power in the name of “legitimacy”, they will increase the polarization of Egyptian society and create space for violent elements to take up arms. That would mean the start of a civil war similar to the one that took place in Algeria after the 1991 elections and not that different from the one going on in Syria now. This is bad for everyone and especially the Muslim Brotherhood because it will be them against their opponents and that is not a battle that is in the interest of Egypt. There are reports that some fringe groups gave already called for jihad in Egypt. If the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood do not take a clear and firm stand against violence, they will be shunned by more Egyptians and lose more credibility.
The low turnout in previous elections leaves room for the interim government to replicate the acts of the Muslim Brotherhood and claim legitimacy as well. It will be easy for the current interim regime to amend the constitution and have it pass with a healthy majority. It will be in the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the new process rather than make it about Morsi and legitimacy. Many dictators were legitimately elected, too.
The best scenario is for the interim president to act quickly. Make the needed changes to the constitution to protect minorities and safeguard civil liberties, hold a referendum on the amended constitution, and organize parliamentarian and presidential elections. Only by building the necessary institutions of governance that will protect the rights of all Egyptians can Egypt move out of its current crisis. The current government cannot make the same mistakes the Brotherhood made. They must act quickly and transparently.
If the Muslim Brotherhood insists on returning Morsi to power instead of moving forward with reform, they will be seen by more people as being interested in power not in solving the country’s problems. That perception can end their legacy in Egypt and elsewhere.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.