The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising has produced an oddly structuralist set of reflections in which the failure of its democratic transition has taken on an almost foreordained quality. Influential political science interpretations of the Egyptian uprising’s failure have focused analytical attention on structural factors, such as the role of a politicized and overreaching military, the uneven balance of power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-Islamist competitors, the former regime’s political structure and the weakness of transitional institutions.
Structure matters, of course. But so does agency. Overly structural interpretations miss the decisive impact of highly contingent events, deflects responsibility from the political actors whose choices drove the transition off course and can lead to unwarranted skepticism about the possibility of meaningful political change.
Egypt’s transition to a legitimate, civilian-led political order after the popular mobilization of January 2011 always faced long odds, but the failure of the transition was never inevitable. Structural explanations of the July 2013 military coup gloss over the fear and uncertainty that shaped political decision-making over the previous two years. The political openings of 2011 were real and potentially transformative and could have provided a platform for slow but sustainable change. Structural analysis should not become an excuse for political malpractice or an analytical surrender to the necessity of autocracy. Different decisions by key political actors such as the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front could have shaped a very different political environment.
The military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, is one obviously crucial inflection point. Why did the military choose to act as it did rather than remain in the background and allow the political process to play out? When the military removed former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it did so both to avoid civil strife and to preserve its institutional interests, while allowing for a managed political transition. But the military’s 2013 intervention led by then-Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi did not seek a negotiated settlement to Egypt’s political crisis and destroyed the prospects of a civilian-led political order. The coup and the subsequent course of repression were choices, not necessary responses to an obvious structural reality.
To understand the link between structural forces and the often poor decisions made by actors fighting for their interests, it is vital to recapture the political murkiness of the transition. Structural analysis now makes the military’s decision to intervene seem obvious and inevitable, but at the time it seemed anything but certain to the Egyptian public and political actors, not to mention analysts and scholars. Indeed, throughout the run-up to the June 30 protests, speculation varied wildly about the military’s ultimate intentions. Even now, as Ellis Goldberg observes, the motivations behind the major shift to intervene directly and irrevocably into politics remain opaque.
We know that key military leaders had a dim view of civilian political leaders and, crucially, had never moved beyond the military’s traditional suspicion and hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood and had lost confidence in Morsi’s ability to maintain stability as the political crisis deepened. Their genuine concern over the prospects of civil strife should not be minimized; however, this concern did not require a specific course of action. Whatever the truth of the military’s rumored role in promoting the June 30 protest, the size of the protests represented a decisive and highly contingent turning point. Had the protests fizzled, the military would almost certainly have elected to stay in the barracks. But the military’s senior leaders were buoyed by the size and scope of the demonstrations and the explicit and widespread calls for a military intervention. Their choice, then, was contingent upon a very specific set of events and could very well have gone differently.
The role of anti-Brotherhood political leaders, activists and the National Salvation Front in these events was also far from predetermined. The military’s choice was enabled by the support of the National Salvation Front, the coalition of opposition figures that mobilized against Morsi and offered a civilian cover to the coup. Without explicit support from this broad spectrum of opposition leaders, it is unlikely that the military would have been emboldened to act so decisively. Even in the midst of escalation, these civilian leaders could have insisted upon Morsi’s resignation, a referendum on his leadership or early presidential elections as their sole goals. However, such options were likely eschewed in that chaotic period for fear that ambiguity would undermine the military’s motivation to act.
The NSF’s choice to set aside concerns about the potential ramifications of military intervention and to align fully with the coup has come to seem inevitable but was not. Some influential political leaders who participated in the June 30 protest, such as Amr Hamzawy and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, endorsed the notion of peaceful protest and mass mobilization as a tool for pressure against Morsi while explicitly warning of the dangers of renewed military rule. Their warnings, wise in retrospect, were ignored by a political leadership determined to seize its moment.
Perhaps the greatest miscalculations were made by the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi. Neither the NSF nor the military’s choices would have been politically viable were it not for the remarkably poor decisions by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak’s fall, especially during their year in power. Even at the late stage of June 2013 — when the military was publicly signaling its frustration with President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government and its inclination for some form of intervention — a coup was still not inevitable and could have been avoided. Had Morsi read the military’s calculations more clearly or anticipated the size of the June 30 protests, he might have taken greater steps to head off the challenge with preemptive concessions.
This failure was not due to the absence of advice. Morsi and his advisers may have understandably brushed aside or been suspicious of the suggestions by Western political scientists and diplomats about how to effectively govern Egypt. But it also received similar advice from its own ideological brothers. As the country tipped toward polarization and instability, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were cautioned by senior leaders from Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party to temper their maximalism and to accept tactical defeats in the name of preserving Egypt’s political transition. In interviews with numerous senior figures in Ennahda, the obstinacy and myopia of the Egyptian Brotherhood was noted and rued.
Choosing to preserve the political transition in such circumstances would have slowed the pace of Egypt’s already glacial reform, but it might have avoided the usurpation of the political process by the military and would have offered a more inclusive political process going forward.
A negotiated stand-down could have also insured a place within political life for the Muslim Brotherhood. While perhaps an unfair outcome, Morsi resigning or agreeing to early elections or a referendum on his rule would have outmaneuvered the military and the growing public agitation in some quarters for the ouster of the democratically elected president. Offering more concessions may still have failed, of course, given the polarization of the political arena and the anticipation of victory by Morsi’s opponents. But this failure was not inevitable — particularly if it had undercut the momentum toward the June 30 protests and removed the military’s pretext for intervention. But such a decision, which was favored by some more conciliatory Brotherhood figures, was rejected.
Why did the Muslim Brotherhood make such poor decisions, and what might it have chosen instead? First, and perhaps most important, senior Brotherhood leaders sought to preserve the coherence of their organization above and beyond any other national goals. The Brotherhood leadership was afraid that major concessions and compromise would alienate much of the rank and file, many of whom were demanding a more radical policy toward state reform and the elimination of the old regime.
This organizational tension also came at a time of increasing Brotherhood unilateralism, in which any calls for reform, let alone revolution, were understood more broadly as calls for state capture. In essence, this posture reaffirmed the worst fears of Brotherhood opponents, who began to believe in the inevitability of zero-sum outcomes with clear winners and clear losers. That backdrop informed opposition decision-making, but also, quite crucially, tempered the willingness of the Brotherhood to make painful compromises during the escalating crisis. Instead of exerting their influence as leaders, they chose to avoid any compromise that would risk splitting the organization. At a moment of national crisis, Morsi chose to address the crisis within the Muslim Brotherhood rather than taking the necessary but difficult steps to preserve Egypt’s political transition. It is darkly ironic that the reckless course of action ultimately adopted by the Brothers has ushered in a period of unmitigated repression and violence that, as Steven Brooke demonstrates, now threatens the integrity of the Brotherhood as a functional entity and organization.
Second, the Brotherhood chose confrontation because it misunderstood its own position in Egyptian society and the scope of dissatisfaction with its rule. Warnings about growing disaffection and social unrest were understood by many within the Brotherhood as the out-of-touch whining of urban elites, unrepresentative of Egyptian society and insignificant in the broader scope of the country’s politics. This view was informed by an exaggerated emphasis on their recent electoral successes. Rather than understanding those outcomes as a reflection of an embryonic political system — in effect, the last elections of the Mubarak era — the Brothers chose to see their string of successes and victories as representative of the deep-seated and abiding preferences of the Egyptian electorate. At root, they understood themselves to be the authentic representatives of Egyptian society.
Lastly, Brotherhood leaders overestimated the constraining power and influence of outside actors, most notably the United States. The Brothers, as demonstrated by their last-minute pleas for U.S. exertion of influence to avoid a coup, thought that fear of U.S. reaction would deter the Egyptian military.
Once again, however, while the cumulative effect of these factors weighs heavily, they cannot be seen as wholly determinative. Other more prudent courses of action remained open and were discussed actively at the time. And as the counsel from external allies in Tunisia demonstrates, concrete discussions of alternative approaches were broached and ultimately rejected. It is here that the temperament and judgment of senior leaders, such as Morsi and his closest colleagues, were lacking. A direct conflict with the state was a reckless and potentially ruinous proposition from the start. Disaster could have been avoided with a more cautious, patient, and prudent decision-making process on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian uprising has certainly failed, but it didn’t necessarily have to. Powerful structural factors set the stage for Egypt’s political crisis and influenced the world views of key decision makers, but ultimately political actors must be judged on the choices they made and the options they rejected.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. You can follow him @mwhanna1
This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.