Battle for future follows long day

By Richard Spencer in Cairo

As many celebrate, others wonder what role Brotherhood will play in Egypt

Opponents of Egypt's Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi celebrate outside the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. Photo / AP
Opponents of Egypt's Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi celebrate outside the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. Photo / AP

The army said it wasn't a military coup. President Mohammed Morsi's cheering opponents, gathered once again in their hundreds of thousands, insisted it wasn't a military coup.

But when the Republican Guard occupied the television station and convoys of troops and tanks rolled down Cairo's main boulevards, the cheers from the flag-waving protesters looking on left no one in any doubt. By last night 32 people had died in clashes, state TV was under army control, three channels had been shut, Morsi and 12 aides were being held and arrest warrants had been issued for hundreds of politicians.

Earlier, when the deadline set by the army for Morsi to solve the country's political crisis passed, the two sides were no longer talking.

But the Muslim Brotherhood certainly saw it as a coup. Morsi gave up trying to persuade the Defence Minister he appointed a year ago, General Abdulfattah al-Sisi, to back off. He pulled out of talks and left it to spokesmen to issue a vain appeal for the army to return to barracks.

By that time the President was said to be inside the clubhouse of the Republican Guard and was perhaps already in effect under house arrest. Orders were given at the airport for senior Brotherhood leaders not to be allowed to leave the country.

The coup officially happened when Sisi appeared on the nation's television screens and confirmed he had acted. He justified his claim that this was merely some sort of technical intervention by insisting that he had no interest in taking power himself. He promised fresh elections. But there was no explanation of what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood won them. The implication of any action of this kind was that only those the army approved of would be allowed to win in future.

Earlier, one of Morsi's closest aides, Essam el-Haddad, the foreign affairs adviser who has spent the last year presenting Egypt's new vision of itself to the forums of the powerful, was able to write a heartfelt and bitter letter to the nation. It was full of foreboding, and had the feel of a last will and testament. "These may be the last lines I get to post on this page. For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let's call what is happening by its real name: military coup."

He pointed out something that is on the minds of many watchers of Islamic jihad today, even if the Egyptian people seem oblivious to it: if Islamists are thrown out of office even when they have won elections acknowledged as free and fair, why should they bother with them? "The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear. Democracy is not for Muslims. I do not need to explain in detail the worldwide catastrophic ramifications of this message."

The way the day would turn out was set when Morsi addressed the nation.

He looked defeated. All his virtues and vices were on display. On the one hand, there was a straightforwardness in the way he repeated over and over again his simple point that he was Egypt's first elected leader - he used the word "legitimacy" scores of times in 45 minutes. He looked hurt, and though the form of address was similar to those that former President Hosni Mubarak employed when resisting removal, he lacked the arrogant sneer.

There were rumours that Morsi would be charged with some crime. It is hard to see what law he has broken, compared with the hundreds killed as Mubarak clung on to power. On the other hand, as so often, he seemed not only to have no answer to his critics, no solution to put forward to the crisis, but no clear sense that one was needed. He did not seem to think that the millions of people who had taken to the streets this week were a significant obstacle to his vision of Egypt.

He did not put forward any compromise for the people to sleep on, a fresh constitution, a new election, a unity government. Oddly, he made those offers directly to Sisi. But the army had begun talking to the opposition and scented blood. They would accept nothing other than Morsi's departure. Sisi said no. He gave his response to Morsi's speech in a statement headed "The Final Hours". "The general commander of the armed forces said it was more honourable for us to die than to have the people of Egypt terrorised or threatened. We swear to God that we will sacrifice our blood for Egypt and its people against all terrorists, extremists and ignorant groups."

As a foretaste of what may be to come, at the same time Morsi was speaking, a march to defend him heading for Cairo University came under fire. At first it seemed as if thugs were responsible, said Amr al-Shaer, 22, who saw three men fall dead beside him. Then he noticed that behind the attackers were police vehicles. Khalid Abdulmaboud said some attackers were seized and found to have police identity cards. The police have long opposed both the revolution that deposed Mubarak, and the Brotherhood.

It is not a coup in the classic sense of a power-crazed general blithely ignoring the will of the people. The crowds in Cairo in favour of the army vastly outnumber those who support the President. "The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to take Egypt 50 years into the past," said Mohammed Mahmoud, a smartly dressed accountant. "We are here to stop that." He had no doubt that the army would keep its promise to hold new elections and not hang on to power for half a century as it did last time it threw out a leader.

For the pious and provincial, who have flocked to Cairo to support him, Morsi is "one of them", a village scholarship boy who by prayer and study rose to be the first ordinary, unarmed Egyptian to hold the country's top office. Brotherhood spokesmen said these people would stand in front of the tanks for him. One student said he was willing to heed that call. "We are here to be martyrs," said Ali Mohammed Ali.

The civilian leaders

Adly Mansour: Egypt's interim President

Adly Mansour took up his job as chief justice of the country's Supreme Constitutional Court only on June 1, and now finds himself Egypt's interim President. Born in 1945, Mansour was appointed to the court in 1992, making him one of its longest-serving judges. The Muslim Brotherhood and the court clashed during Mohammed Morsi's clumsy attempts to force through constitutional change, with the Islamist party seeing it as an enemy and launching sometimes violent protests against its members. Morsi was never able to control the judiciary. In December security guards had to step in after the car of Maher al-Beheiry, Mansour's predecessor, was attacked by Brotherhood supporters fearful the court would dissolve the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the amended constitution.

Mohamed ElBaradei: Egypt's interim Prime Minister

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN's nuclear watchdog and Nobel Peace laureate, was a virtual unknown in his country until a few years ago. Returning in 2010, he decided to challenge then President Hosni Mubarak. He played a key role in protests that removed Mubarak from power, and has emerged as a key opposition figure. He was to stand as a liberal, secular candidate in this month's presidential elections, but withdrew in January citing concerns about the undemocratic way the military was governing. Last year, ElBaradei launched a political party which he said would be above ideology. He is expected to take the role of Prime Minister in a technocratic government until a parliamentary election can be held.

The uncertain road ahead

What happens next?

The "road-map" announced by the army is a swift one. The chief justice was sworn in last night as interim head of state, and will oversee a revision of the constitution to be followed by fresh parliamentary and presidential elections - preferably with simpler rules than those last year which stretched out over several weeks. The key question is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to take part - and whether they will agree to do so.

Who is in charge?

General Abdulfattah al-Sisi, the Defence Minister, insists he has no pretensions to power. Judge Adly Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, is the new acting head of state. Mohammed Elbaradei, the former UN atomic agency chief, has taken on his now familiar role as a revolutionary eminence grise - he was the first politician to speak to the nation to back the new arrangements. But few doubt that in reality power lies in the hands of the man who announced the coup to the Egyptian people, claiming in time-honoured fashion to be acting in their name - General Sisi.

How will the Muslim Brotherhood react?

The coup is undoubtedly important for Egypt's future. The Brotherhood's reaction will have repercussions around the world. Mohammed Morsi won 5.7 million votes in the first round of last year's election, and 13.2 million in the subsequent run-off. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won more than 10 million votes in parliamentary elections. The implicit threat of many Islamist leaders is simple: if we cannot win by democratic means, why should we take part? The Brotherhood has spawned many of the world's Islamist terror groups, even while renouncing violence itself. If, however, it manages to present a more inclusive face it may yet find itself in the position of the ruling party in Turkey. Islamists there were forced out of office the first time they were elected, but are now the party of government. Other Islamist groups round the world will be watching.

What does this mean for the US and Barack Obama's Middle East policy?

The US now finds itself funding a military which has carried out a coup against a leader Washington has called democratically and fairly elected. Obama has set great store by supporting pragmatic engagement as well as democratic reform, ever since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009. Now he has to choose between them, and the US$1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) grant to Egypt's military will be his first test. Obama said he had ordered a review into the foreign military aid to Egypt after Morsi was ousted. Most important still will be the new Government promising to keep the peace treaty with Israel - as the Brotherhood did, but which some parties oppose.

How does this change the dynamic of the Arab Spring?

Egypt was the biggest scalp of the Arab Spring, and the restoration of military rule seems to bring it to a crashing halt. However, that will depend on whether elections are held soon. The coup could possibly burnish the Spring's reputation - its greatest critics said it was replacing military dictatorships with religious ones.

Will it affect Syria?

One report suggested the turning point for Sisi was a rally where Morsi and a succession of speakers supported the Sunni opposition in Syria in vivid terms. He is said to have recoiled from visions of a legion of hardened young militants returning to Egypt from the battlefront. He will want a more disengaged stance, though is unlikely to change Egypt's stance against Bashar al-Assad totally.

- additional reporting, Independent

- Daily Telegraph UK

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