Who’s to Blame for Egypt’s Chaos?

Many U.S. pundits are blaming the Egyptian coup on the clumsy political actions of elected Islamist President Morsi. But the collapse of Egypt’s one-year democratic experiment resulted, too, from the rigid opposition of the secularists who entered an alliance with the old power structure, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

The cultural situation in much of the Middle East resembles a volcanic landscape. On the surface there is a layer of Westernization, within which dwells the portion of the population that has, in terms of lifestyle, come to favor Western ways.

This is not an unexpected phenomenon. After all, imperial European powers controlled much of North Africa from the early Nineteenth Century onward as well as most of the rest of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early Twentieth Century. Members of the region’s upper classes, both economic and military, long interacted with and often mimicked European colonials.

Scene from Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the uprising against longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Though there have always been differences in the details (for instance, some are more democratically minded than others), the resulting Westernized layer has always been largely secular. Those among them who may be of a religious bent are moderates and have no problem with a separation of state and religion. Though it varies with the country, those belonging to this layer make up perhaps 25 percent of the population.

Beneath this surface layer is the majority population, a deep pool of magma in the volcanic landscape analogy. It is much more religious and much more tied to Islamic traditions and values, although this does not mean the majority is always united in outlook. Some strongly desire an Islamic state while others do not see this as a necessary goal.

There are other sources of division as well. Nonetheless, as in the case of volcanoes, the magma exerts fluctuating political and social pressure on the surface layer. To indefinitely keep this explosive force from breaking through is probably an impossible task.

In Egypt, since the mid-1950s, the task of keeping the magma from erupting was accomplished by a series of military regimes. The officer corps of the Egyptian military tends to be secular and thus belongs to society’s surface layer. The same can be said for those who run the Egyptian police. In both cases they see the religious elements of their society as ideologically backward and competitors for power.

Thus, upon attaining control, such military regimes, be they those of the famous Gamal Abdel Nasser or the infamous Hosni Mubarak, worried about the revolutionary potential of the more traditional majority. They sought to control it by either co-opting or suppressing any potential leadership cadres coming out of this population.

For instance, they control most of the mosque imams by making them employees of (and thus financially dependent upon) the state. Also, they would regularly arrest and imprison the leadership elements they could not buy off. This was often the fate of those who led the Society of Muslim Brothers.

The Magma’s Moment

This pattern seemed to have been broken by the events that brought down the military regime of Hosni Mubarak. The mass demonstrations of 2011 initially convinced the military elite that Mubarak needed to be replaced and then, with the continuance of popular demonstrations, that acquiescence in a process of democratization would be necessary as long as the military maintained its organizational and economic privileges.

During this revolutionary period other groups within the Westernized surface layer proved more naive. The various elements of the youth movement that initiated the anti-Mubarak demonstrations convinced themselves that their bravery and sacrifice gave them the right to define the political outcome of the revolution, i.e. a liberal democracy.

Yet, while the youth movements represented hundreds of thousands, they were not the majority. What they did not foresee was that “their” revolution would create the cracks in the surface political structure that would release the magma, the latent power of the traditional majority, to flow to the surface and, through a democratic process, prevail.

The result was the victory of Islamist Mohamed Morsi, who became the first democratically elected president of Egypt. He accomplished this historic feat in June 2012 when he won 51.7 percent of the vote in a free and fair election. What followed, depending upon which element of society one belonged to, was elation, shock, or fear and, for some, there was a stubborn refusal to accept the results. This led to a series of political mistakes all around that undermined Egypt’s democratic experiment.

The elation felt by Morsi and his supporters, particularly the vast number of Egyptians formally or informally associated with the Society of Muslim Brothers, was easy to anticipate. For decades the Islamists of Egypt had been persecuted. Their leaders had been jailed for long periods, sometimes tortured, sometimes executed.

When Morsi won the presidential election, millions of Egyptian Muslims – traditionalists, fundamentalists, and just the ordinary pious people – must have felt that this was their God-given moment. This elation was probably behind the newly elected leadership’s precipitous writing of a constitution that reflected the religious inclinations of the majority.

Morsi and his supporters assumed that their election win was a mandate to carry through their own vision for Egypt, that is, an Islamic-oriented state. They moved too far, too fast, and did not offer sufficient protections for either religious or secular minorities. In doing so they caused the losers of the election to panic at the prospect of Islamist rule.

Thus, there was quick and vehement resistance to the new government, initially coming from the Egyptian courts. The array of secular forces that had lost the election appealed to the courts to put aside just about everything the new government did. And the Egyptian courts, still populated with Mubarak-era appointees, proved quite willing to reverse the democratic process.

President Morsi then overreacted to this resistance. He declared himself beyond the authority of the Egyptian courts, and for a short time, he attempted to assume dictatorial powers. He soon backed away from this position and, as antigovernment demonstrations organized by Tamaroud, a group associated with the Egypt’s secular youth movements, grew ever larger, he showed a belated willingness to compromise.

Morsi accepted the need to negotiate a government of national unity and accelerated elections for a new parliament. However, it was too late. Increasingly, Morsi was in a no-win situation.

For instance, Tamaroud repeatedly blamed Morsi and his government for the country’s rising level of crime. However, Morsi had not been able to gain control over the country’s police establishment, which, like the courts, remained in the hands of Mubarak-era functionaries.

Morsi was blamed for the poor state of the Egyptian economy, though during his one year in office, he never had effective control of an economy that has been derelict for decades. He was even accused of increasing the influence of the United States in Egypt. These accusations made little sense and were probably propaganda moves made in an effort to destroy the new government altogether.

The secular minority seemed to be taking a position that the traditionalist/religious majority would not be allowed to rule, even within the context of democratic structures.

Mistakes of the Losers

The primary mistake of those who lost the June 2012 election was to abandon the democratic process. What was needed were guarantees from the new government that there would be a regular election cycle, that those elections would be as free and fair as the one Morsi’s opponents had just lost, and that whatever constitution was produced under Morsi’s government would be amendable through a reasonable process. These were achievable goals, particularly once Morsi understood the opposition he faced.

But the opponents of the elected government proved averse to compromise. They often boycotted negotiations with the government. Instead they opted for scrapping the entire election. In doing so, those who made up organizations like Tamaroud and Mohammed ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, appeared to be saying that their own (primarily secular) vision of Egypt was the only legitimate vision.

Unfortunately, this outlook eventually led them into a de facto alliance with the military to bring down Egypt’s first democratically elected government.

Those who opposed Morsi may soon rue the day they refused to negotiate with him. Why so? Listen to the explanation given by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian:

“Much has rightly been made of the threat to Egyptian democracy that comes from the so-called deep state: the still entrenched bureaucracy made up of officials of Mubarak’s National Democratic party, elitist entrepreneurs who were his cronies, and an army hierarchy that exploited state assets.  . . .  Some accused Morsi of joining the ranks of this authoritarian elite. But the real charge was that he did too little to challenge them or their foot soldiers, a corrupt and brutal police force.”

Thus, if those who celebrated Mohamed Morsi’s removal believe that the Egyptian military and its “deep state” accomplices share their democratic vision for a better Egypt, they are doomed to disappointment. These elements care nothing for the political and civil rights of the Egyptian people. Within hours of the military coup troops were shooting pro-Morsi demonstrators and closing down news outlets.

It is not the social conservatism of Egypt’s majority that is, again using Steele’s words, “the biggest and most immediate danger to the country and the political rights that all Egyptians won with the overthrow of Mubarak.” But rather, as Steele warns, it is the military, the police, and other entrenched reactionary forces which are the greatest threat.

Having created the conditions for the military to reenter the political arena, the secular parties may now find it beyond their power to push them out a second time. So what are the probable consequences? It looks as if Egyptians face two overlapping possibilities: renewed military dictatorship and/or civil war. They are not the only possibilities, just the most likely.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “Who’s to Blame for Egypt’s Chaos?

  1. Brian Steere
    July 10, 2013 at 11:43

    I’ve just bumped into Consortium News (via the Bush/Bin Laden ‘symbiosis’ article and I appreciate its desire for honesty.

    This article uncovers some of what is going on but uses the headline ‘who’s to blame’. This mentality is part of the problem and not part of the answer.

    I feel that the analysis of event in the world needs to be distilled to the mentality that is shared in one mind – albeit in different degrees and in different forms.

    Only by identifying the mentality that we share within ourselves – can we ‘repent of’ or unsubscribe from it. Moral self righteousness over against the perceived (magnified or projected) ‘wrongs of the other’ or in a word ‘blame’.

    The shift in perspective that comes automatically from disengaging blame leads not so much to a better analysis as to a clearer discernment. They are quite different, because an analysis breaks a thing into parts and decides, compares and weights according to a set of values or conditionings of one’s own self interest, but discernment opens an honesty that integrates and unifies to a Universal self-interest.

    The goal, purpose, function or intent of our lives may not be ours to change (at the level of our sense of ourselves in the world) but it is a freedom as to how we get there.

    When we lock into our own method as the only method, we make all else invalid to our sight. This is self-righteousness or ‘judgement’.

    Awakening an addict to his or her addiction is not easy unless they have come to the end of their capacity to deny it. But such an education can be in all our communications.

    Those who awaken to their insanity are defacto no longer completely insane. Sharing a willingness for regaining trust through a greater honesty invites renewal.

    The basis upon which to live from is not covered by the past or denied by its extension into the future – but is a living presence of connectedness, relation or embrace – that CANNOT be substituted for with conceptual identifications and mutual definitions.

    This comment may seem irrelevant to the particulars of the situation in Egypt – yet is relevant to every instance where a perceived conflict of interests leads to a breakdown of communication, and war of one kind or another.

    • Peter Loeb
      July 11, 2013 at 06:43

      Dear Mr. Steele:
      “Consortium.news” regularly changes “heads”/titles.

      Davidson’s original title for his analysis was:


      See his webbsite: http://www.tothepointanalyses.com

  2. Dar
    July 8, 2013 at 18:51

    Excellent article.

    The Western media over the past two years has so thoroughly fallen in love with their own made-up vision of the “young, hip, Facebook-using, secural, Westernized young Egyptian protester”, that they fail to see that most Egyptians are still fairly religious and traditional and don’t want to see Egypt be America.

    “For instance, Tamaroud repeatedly blamed Morsi and his government for the country’s rising level of crime.”

    Not only that, but often when Morsi would appoint a new police chief, that police chief would get physically assaulted by thugs, and his assault would be cheered by the very hostile opposition media.

    Jadaliyya has a very good article on what Morsi faced:
    “Unpacking Anti-Muslim Brotherhood Discourse”


  3. gregorylkruse
    July 8, 2013 at 11:44

    I don’t know how anyone can disagree. This coup (that dares not say its name) is altogether a bad thing. How easily the masses are duped!

  4. Dennis Brasky
    July 8, 2013 at 11:09

    Davidson’s admiration of formal democracy and the sanctity of so-called “fair and free elections” is utterly naïve. The presidential election completely shut out the left – it was a “choice” between cancer (a Mubarack loyalist) and cholera (the MB). He basically apologizes for the Brotherhood and neglects to discuss their anti-woman program and their attempts to demonize Coptic Christians and instigate violence against them, let alone the MB’s allegiance to a continuation of the neoliberal economic policies that sparked the Revolution in the first place. Being that there was no mechanism for recalling an out-of-favor president, TWENTY TWO MILLION EGYPTIANS imposed that recall. The military (certainly no progressive institution) went along before the revolutionary wave went so far as to attack their privileges and demand justice for their and the police’s crimes against the people.

    • stateless
      July 8, 2013 at 13:19

      So how exactly was Egypt’s election different from ours? The US doesn’t “shut out the left”? American voters get to make a meaningful choice instead of one between “cancer” and “cholera”? I don’t think so. Do you believe the US military should overthrow the elected government? If not Obama, then Bush/Cheney?

  5. Jason Blazevic
    July 7, 2013 at 21:42

    Good article. It is worth noting that Morsi won 25% of the vote in the first round and won ‘51.7%’ in the runoff against Shafiq.

  6. Tony
    July 7, 2013 at 15:16

    The western controlled “Egyptian” military, took Morsi out because he (Morsi) had ambitions outside his approved role as a Western puppet/collaborator.
    There are two things he did that made the governments of Israel and the U.S uneasy.
    1. He met with Iran and Russia
    2. He wanted to join the BRIC countries.

  7. Shirley Bliley
    July 7, 2013 at 14:47


    It’s well to remember who the Obama adminstration sent to Egypt at the height of the first demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The Egyptian military and the intelligence services are joined at the hip, as are ours. The Wisners are CIA “aristocracy,” no matter the younger’s designation as a diplomat.

    • F. G. Sanford
      July 7, 2013 at 16:04

      Yes, very interesting. Wisner’s father was Sarkozy’s stepfather in addition to being one of the Godfathers of the present CIA. Franklin Lamb claims that just before Morsi’s ouster, El Baradai also retained the U.S. lobbying firm Patton Boggs, and had some kind of liaison with with the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations. First, we heard that El Baradei was the new prime minister, and then we heard he wasn’t. I guess the situation is very “fluid”, as they say in State Department double-speak.

  8. Hillary
    July 7, 2013 at 13:21

    Zionists are to blame – they caused Arab Land to be given to Eastern Europeans.
    The creation of Israel with the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Christians naturally resulted in a “backlash” to the injustice suffered.
    All Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East including Egypt have grouped together lead by the Muslin Religious Intifada against the Judeo/Christian crusade unjustly cloaked in revenge ,the spreading i of Democracy and the “war on terror” etc.etc.


    • Morton Kurzweil
      July 8, 2013 at 11:20

      Total nonsense. The entire history of Islam is is the constant coercion of a population to the beliefs of one Islamic sector another, followed by short periods of enlightenment and free exchange of knowledge and ideas with respect for all ethnic differences. These flowerings of centers of civilization are repeatedly destroyed by sectarian anarchists who use a religious base as a step to personal political power.
      We can expect the same with an “Arab Spring” which is another “Arab Winter” for all who desire peace and security and the human rights of independence from slavery to the invented morality of the self-righteous.

Comments are closed.