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Turmoil in Egypt: Learning lessons from the Philippines

By James M. Dorsey

With Egypt deeply polarized politically and religiously, kick-starting a political process capable of bridging divides and creating an inclusive democratic process seems a distant prospect. It will ultimately depend on the likely shrinking over time of the military's popular base and the government's realization that it needs the United States and the European Union to tackle the country's vast economic problems.

Amid entrenched political battle lines that have been reinforced by a brutal security force crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Egyptians would do well to look at past events in the Philippines as well as the last 2.5 years of their own history. Military support for a popular uprising forced elected Philippine President Joseph Estrada out of office twelve years ago. Nine subsequent years of corrupt government by Mr. Estrada's successor, Gloria Arroyo, have since persuaded many to rethink their original backing for the undemocratic way the president was ousted.

Egypt has a long way to go before liberals and revolutionaries realize that they made a pact with the devil by joining forces with the military, the security forces and supporters of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak to topple Morsi, the country's first democratically-elected president. The resignation of Mohammed el Baradei and charging of the liberal former international civil servant and Nobel Prize winner as vice-president in Egypt's military-appointed government in protest against the bloody break-up of Muslim Brotherhood's protests constitutes the first crack in popular support for the coup against Morsi. It is an initial, very tentative step down the Philippines' trodden path. Mr. El Baradei complained in his resignation letter that "the beneficiaries of what happened today (the break-up of the Brotherhood protests) are those who call for violence, terrorism and the most extreme groups".

It took many Filipinos years to privately realize that the unconstitutional ousting of a democratically elected president had not solved their problems; the odds are it will take Egyptians a significant amount of time to follow suit. Six weeks of political strife with opposing political forces in Cairo protesting on highly symbolized rival squares have entrenched deep-seated distrust between multiple groups in society and institutions. It has pitted the left, the secularists and the Christian Copts against Islamists and rural Sunni Muslim Egypt, and significant portions of the population that are likely to increase in numbers against the military as well as the security forces.

The political fault lines have for now allowed the military, the security forces and the Mubarak leftovers to exploit popular support to return Egypt in many ways to the era of Mr. Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 by an alliance of leftists, secularists and Islamists. The interests of the alliance coincided with those of the military that was keen on preventing Mr. Mubarak from installing his son Gamal, who was surrounded by businessmen who posed a threat to the economic and commercial interests of the armed forces, as his successor. That alliance produced 17 months of failed military rule followed by the rise of Mr. Morsi, whose one-year tenure was marked by incompetence, economic failure, arrogance and autocratic and majoritarian tendencies.

The military this time round successfully exploited popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment to achieve public acceptance of repressive policies, the revival of the coercive state and a prevalence for security rather than political solutions for political problems. It did so through a combination of demonization of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization reinforced by a campaign in dominant media that were either state-owned or co-opted.

To be sure, the military despite its hard handedness and single-minded determination to secure its perks, privileges and role as the ultimate political arbiter has consistently enjoyed the confidence of a majority of Egyptians for years. Nevertheless, its agenda in recent months has been to cut the Brotherhood down to size, if not destroy it, at the risk of ever deeper polarization of Egyptian society and civil disobedience or political violence that would be brutally suppressed. The declaration of emergency law and a curfew in 14 Egyptian provinces has further set the stage. The security forces, eager to take revenge for their humiliation in the post-Mubarak era when they emerged as Egypt’s most despised institution, have proven that they are happy to oblige.

The military and the government, its civilian façade, went out of its way since Mr. Morsi’s ouster to ensure that the Brotherhood would not engage in any political process despite its insistence that there was a place at the table for the group. The Brotherhood had little reason to take the military by its word with many of its leaders, including its spiritual guide and Mr. Morsi, in prison awaiting trial; others being sought by security forces; its media outlets shut down; a campaign in state-run media as well as media associated with the anti-Morsi campaign designed to demonize the Brotherhood; the targeting of Brotherhood-related businesses; and finally the deaths of hundreds in the break-up of pro-Morsi protests.

Efforts by the United States, the European Union and Gulf states were thwarted when the military in contrast to the Brotherhood rejected a compromise formula that would have allowed both parties to save face and would have averted this week’s bloodshed. "We had a political plan that was on the table that had been accepted by the other side (the Muslim Brotherhood). They could have taken this option. So all that has happened today was unnecessary," Reuters news agency quoted said EU envoy Bernardino Leon, who co-led the mediation effort with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The compromise would have involved the release of imprisoned Muslim Brothers, an honorable exit from the presidency for Mr. Morsi, an amended constitution and new elections. The failed mediation effort served the military as a fig leaf that allowed it to suggest that it had attempted to secure a political solution before it cracked down.

The turmoil in recent weeks in Egypt has proven that Egypt’s Western allies and even the United Arab Emirates, a staunchly anti-Morsi Gulf state that has funded the post-Morsi government and worked with the US and the EU to find a political solution, have at this point, at best, limited leverage. That is likely to change once the military and its government recognizes that they need the support of the international community to secure a crucial International Monetary Fund loan as well as Western aid. In the short term, Gulf funding will allow the government to fund its operations. Gulf money however is a Band-Aid that will not enable the government to tackle Egypt’s structural problems. The need for international support is likely to be enhanced once the military’s popular cover disintegrates.

The United States and the European Union have so far shied away from calling a spade a spade. While they have condemned the violence and called for dialogue, they have refused to define the military ousting of an elected president as a coup. In the absence of any real leverage, doing so, including in the United States accepting the legal requirement of a cut-off of $1.5 billion a year primarily in military aid, would enhance Western leverage when Egypt turns to them for help. That leverage could enable Western nations to help Egypt when it is ready to cut short a path that post-Mubarak Egypt has been traveling for the past 2.5 years and that took the Philippines more than a decade to learn.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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