Egypt: Morsi’s Position Becoming Untenable – What Next?

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s position is becoming increasingly untenable. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people are demonstrating against him, calling for his resignation. On Monday, the powerful army issued an ultimatum to Morsi to resolve the political crisis within 48 hours – a deadline which expires in just under six hours time. Meanwhile, Morsi went on television last night, making a defiant speech that as Egypt’s first elected president, he has a mandate to stay.

It is certainly true that Morsi won a reasonable victory in last June’s presidential election. He won 52% of the vote in the run-off (albeit amid a low turnout of 52%). But the candidate of the old regime won a surprisingly strong 48%. Moreover, since that time, Egypt has passed through multiple crises, and Morsi’s popularity has fallen sharply. His opponents see him as too authoritarian, too Islamist, or simply too incompetent, in terms of handling the economy and public security.

Against this backdrop, Business Monitor Online‘s Middle East and North Africa team outlined three broad scenarios for Egypt in the near term:

  • Direct military coup: This would be extremely risky for the armed forces, since it would be removing Egypt’s first democratically elected president (potentially invoking memories of the Algerian military’s seizure of power in 1991, which led to a long civil war) and putting the army firmly in the driving seat, which would expose it to blame for governing the country and managing the economy. Indeed, after the military directly ran Egypt following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, people grew tired of its rule.
  • ‘Soft’ coup: More probable than a direct military coup is a situation whereby the army forces Morsi out and replaces him with a technocratic civilian unity government that sets a timetable for new presidential and parliamentary elections. (An alternative outcome would see Morsi remain as a caretaker figurehead.) This would still be somewhat controversial, because an elected president would be removed from office, but it would be far less divisive than a direct coup. As things stand, this is emerging as the likeliest scenario.
  • Morsi resigns ‘willingly’: A final scenario is that Morsi heeds opposition calls and resigns gracefully. (If so, we consider it more likely that he would be pushed to resign rather than step down of his own accord.) Although this may bring short-term relief, it would not resolve long-standing governance problems. It would also raise the question of who would succeed Morsi, particularly as the new president would not have any popular mandate. There are few consensus figures active in Egypt’s political scene that would be accepted by the government, the army, and the public.

Too Early To Judge Egypt’s Arab Spring

Overall, the Arab Spring in Egypt has been met with increasing cynicism by observers, both in Egypt and outside the country. Our take is that this negativity is understandable, but somewhat premature. No one should be surprised about the extent of Egypt’s political problems, for it was never going to be the case that 30 years of one-man rule (and 59 years of one-party rule) would be swiftly and smoothly followed by a competent, liberal, and democratic government. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe managed this transition relatively smoothly after 1989, but they had collective memories of pre-Communist democracy, and the political, economic, and cultural anchor of the European Union and NATO. Even then, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania (not to mention Albania) became laggards on the road to convergence, while Yugoslavia succumbed to civil war.

At the time of Mubarak’s removal, we drew parallels with Indonesia following the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998. Both were and are Muslim nations where one man ruled for decades with the support of the military and which faced struggles between secular-nationalist and Islamist currents. In Indonesia, the country saw the presidency change three times in three years, and there were economic crises and frequent rumours of impending military coups, not to mention separatist wars in the peripheral regions. It was only after 2004 that Indonesia began to stabilise, and democratic governance set in. Egypt is much more homogenous than Indonesia, and should thus avoid fissiparous tendencies, but it shares many of the latter’s problems. We therefore think that Egypt could experience several more years of political and economic turmoil before democracy becomes consolidated… and even that is not guaranteed.