More than two years after they forced their longtime president and former air force chief Hosni Mubarak out of office, Egyptians seem willing to consider a return to military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to power in Mubarak’s wake, is deeply unpopular.
Mass demonstrations across Egypt’s major cities on Sunday, which killed at least eight and prompted four cabinet ministers to resign, highlighted popular dissatisfaction with the ruling Islamist party’s economic mismanagement and attempts at desecularization.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood took power in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Egypt’s trade deficit has widened, food and fuel shortages have grown more dire, investment and tourism have dwindled while the government is expected to post a deficit equivalent to 11.5 percent of gross domestic product this year.
Liberal and secular Egyptians have also been alarmed what they perceive as powergrabs on the Muslim Brotherhood’s part. President Mohamed Morsi, elected with a 51.7 percent majority last year, pushed through a referendum on a new constitution that was written exclusively by Islamists and representatives of the military. He also shielded himself and the upper chamber of parliament, which is the only acting legislative body since a third of the lower house elections were invalidated by the courts, from prosecution.
Egypt’s defense chief Colonel General Abdul Fatah Sisi warned in January that the state was on the verge of “collapse” and added last week that the soldiers might have to step in to prevent the country from entering a “dark tunnel” of internal conflict. “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots. There is more honor in death than watching a single Egyptian harmed while his army is standing idly by,” he told officers in comments that were posted on the military’s Facebook page.
Morsi said in an interview with Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that was published on Sunday that he was confident the army wouldn’t intervene, however. He also rejected protesters’ calls on him to resign. “There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy,” he said, arguing that his premature resignation would destabilize Egypt’s already fragile political constellation.
Not all Egyptians share Morsi’s concerns. The Financial Times reported on Monday that “many Egyptians now say they would prefer military rule to the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more hardline Islamist allies.”
The army may have been hoping for this all along. Aaron David Miller suggested in The National Interest last year that it stepped aside willingly so the Muslim Brotherhood would be blamed for the country’s spiraling economic and political crisis. “They now must govern, manage and produce,” he wrote about the Islamists, while it is “all but impossible to meet the expectations that have been rising ever since Mubarak was ousted.”
The Brothers may have maneuvered themselves into the worst of all possible situations. They won’t succeed in relieving Egypt’s crushing economic problems any more than Mubarak did but in the process of trying to manage, they could compromise their principles and lose their ideological cachet.
That has since happened. What remains to be seen is whether the army exploits the opportunity to return to power or prefers to remain out of the public’s scrutiny instead where, so far, it has continued to enjoy the same privileges it had during Mubarak’s time.