The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Confused about Egypt? An expert walks you through it.

Shadi Hamid is director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. His research focuses on Islamist political parties and democratic reform in the Arab world.

Ezra Klein: Pretend I know literally nothing about what's happening in Egypt. Two months ago, I went to the moon, and I just came back today, and I asked you to explain why everyone is talking about Egypt. What do you tell me?

Shadi Hamid: Oh boy. Where do I start?

There were mass protests scheduled for June 30th calling for the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The protesters had  a long list of grievances, some dealing with Morsi’s incompetence in governing, some dealing with his unwillingness to reach out to the full range of Egyptian political actors. The anger had been building over the last few months, and Morsi really failed to absorb, channel, or address that anger. He was rather stubborn till his last days in office.

EK: Can you be a bit more specific on the grievances? Is this about a bad economy? Or about Morsi personally? Or about rival political parties?

SH: The grievances are diverse. You have original revolutionaries, liberal elites, old-regime elements, civil bureaucrats, state institutions like the Ministry of the Interior and even the police, and ordinary Egyptians who are just angry about the economic situation. For all of these different groups there was a different set of concerns and priorities but all could direct their anger toward Morsi.

In terms of the economy, part of the problem is that you have these newly elected Islamist elites who come in at the top of the state institutions. But these institutions are made up of old-school state bureaucrats who are hostile to Islamist regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is why you don’t want to be president after a revolution that doesn’t push out the old regime. In that way, 2011 wasn’t a full revolution because many of the old elements of the order stayed in place. The result was that the Brotherhood was technically in power but it couldn’t wield control over the state. That led to a kind of governing failure the Brotherhood simply wasn’t prepared for.

But there’s also the identity issue at the elite level, which is the Islamist vs. liberal divide. Many liberals felt the Brotherhood was attacking Egypt’s core identity. That’s where a lot of the hatred arose. You can compromise on how to run the economy. But when it comes to the very nature of the state, there is a real divide in Egyptian society about how those things should look. It’s not the kind of thing where you can negotiate what the role of religion should be. I think there was a fear the Brotherhood was going to use its power to solidify control over state institutions over time and then the very nature of the state of Egypt would be changed. That fueled a lot of the hatred among liberal elites, and some of those elites owned television stations or other media outlets they used to attack Morsi.

EK: Okay, so then the protests begin How do we go from people in the street to Morsi out of power?

SH: So with millions of Egyptians on the street, the military stepped in and announced a 48-hour ultimatum. Two days later, the army formally announced they were removing Morsi from power, taking the reins, and they would oversee a new road map for Egyptian politics. But what happened, really, was Morsi was removed by force, with armed guards taking him away, and he’s now effectively under house arrest. So this is a textbook military coup. Some Egyptians don't see it that way, because the military has a lot of popular support right now. But historically military coups often do have popular support. And that’s very frightening. When you mix this nationalism and populism, and adoration of the army, you get a very explosive mix.

EK: And what's happened to the rest of the Brotherhood?

SH: The key thing post-coup is that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood refuse to back down. They continue to claim Morsi is the legitimate president, and they are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend his presidency. So what we’ve seen in recent days is large-scale protests supporting Morsi organized by the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups saying they will not surrender until Morsi is reinstated. So we have a fundamental crisis of legitimacy where one part of the country considers Morsi to be the legitimate head of state and the other part considers the coup legitimate and Morsi's term over.

EK: Which side actually has majority support among the Egyptian people? Or do average Egyptians simply wish this whole thing wasn't happening?

SH: It’s very hard to tell. Part of the problem in Egyptian politics is everyone claims their own numbers so it becomes a war of crowds. The anti-Morsi group claims 33 million people protested last week, which defies what we know of physical spaces. A pro-Morsi speaker said their protests were 30 million strong. This is a byproduct of a failed political process. It’s a war of who can amass the most people in support of their cause and impose their will on the other.

But there is broad popular support for the military stepping in simply because people tend to cheer on military intervention after periods of economic deterioration, social instability, and political polarization -- all of the negative factors that push people to give up on the democratic process were very much present in Egypt. And the military is still the most trusted state institution.

EK: So what comes next?

SH: What I would’ve hoped would happen before today is to find a way to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the process and give them a stake in the new order. That might not have been possible right away, and it would’ve required some really rock-solid guarantees that they could participate in and even win in elections, but there could’ve been a give-and-take in which they give up some legitimacy claims in return for participation guarantees.

But now they have at least 50 members shot down by the military this morning. They're calling them martyrs. Now it will be much harder for them to give up these legitimacy claims because then what did those people die for?

So I think there are two options. First is the Algeria or eradication scenario, in which the military and old-regime elements simply try to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s the repression option. Then you have the referendum option. I don’t know how you would do it, exactly. The military has dug in so deep to its position, and it’s already calling the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, so I don’t know if this is realistic. But typically what you’d do is have some vote where both sides agree to abide by the will of the people.

At least in the near term, though, I think we could just be in a continuation of this low-level civil conflict, this war of attrition between the two sides. A stalemate with violence, if you will. The short-term outlook is very dark now.