Photo of demonstrations in Tahrir


Egypt: Notes from the Ground

From Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, June 5, 2012. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

By Ahmed Ragab

I was in Egypt in June 2013, and also the year before when Mohamed Morsi was first elected president. Fifty days after Morsi’s election, 72 percent of Egyptians reported that they would reelect him, but ten months later, only 30 percent of Egyptians said they would reelect him. By June 2013, 78 percent of Egyptians felt that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was actually worse than they expected, and a recent poll revealed that about 75 percent of Egyptians don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood should be part of the future political project or process in Egypt.1 What caused this dramatic shift in support for Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood in general, that led to the events of June 2013?

We need to view the recent events in Egypt within two contexts: the political and electoral context since January 2011; and the political process that started after the June 2011 presidential elections.

First, the mass protests in January 2011 signaled the collapse of a particular political system that had lost all legitimacy. In other words, people believed that those structures could no longer possibly serve their interests and that they would rather jump into the unknown than continue with such structures. When Egyptians took to the streets and took down Hosni Mubarak’s regime, there was no other clear alternative. The initial plan drafted by the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) (and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and most Islamist forces) was to summon the people to a series of ballots that would deflate the protest movement by channeling it into the ballot box. However, these successive ballots failed to produce political institutions capable of earning people’s trust, or of addressing the social, economic, and political grievances that motivated the original protest movement. The protests of June 30 signaled the failure of the entire post–January 2011 pathway to create a new stable political system that could earn sufficient popular support and trust.

Egyptians were summoned to the ballot box five times, until Morsi was elected, and then another time during Morsi’s tenure for a referendum on a newly drafted constitution. The final results of all these elections suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood handily won each ballot. A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals a continuous and consistent decline in support (by percentage and also in number of votes) for the Muslim Brotherhood. This decline is across the board, but there is a clear urban/rural divide (the Muslim Brotherhood was losing more and more of the urban vote), an age divide (the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists in general, were losing the younger vote), and a divide along economic status (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists were losing the middle-class vote, while keeping at least some of their gains and support in the lower classes).2 Clearly, Muslim Brotherhood leadership detected these patterns, given their consistent delays of the parliamentary elections, and their refusal to go to the ballot box in response to the June 30 protests. As the new system being built was slowly failing, those leading it were also losing support and becoming more isolated within their own base.

Second, Morsi’s election in June 2012 was not a regular presidential election, because, without a constitution, Egyptians didn’t even know whether we would have a presidential or a parliamentary system. Morsi was supposed to continue and complete the process of building the new institutions. Thus, the process of electing Morsi was perceived to be not just another election within an institutionalized series of elections, but rather a confidence vote in someone who would supervise the creation of the institutions (also carrying the risk that this person might rig the system in his favor). And in the first few months after his election, Morsi ruled to the center, in the sense that he presented himself more or less as a leader who would try to usher the country into another era.3

Protesters in Tahrir Square waving flags

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as they watch his speech at Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Photo by Tribes of the World via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0


But in November 2012, Morsi issued his second constitutional declaration,4 which included three important changes: First, it would make all his decisions immune to judiciary oversight; second, it would allow him to appoint a new prosecutor general; and third, it would allow him to immunize a controversial constitutional assembly that was being challenged in court, and which was drafting a constitution. The declaration resulted in huge waves of protests, and the response from the Muslim Brotherhood was the most violent that had been seen up to this point. Eventually, Morsi had to annul the declaration, but only after the constitution was completed before the annulment, and without reversing its effects, deepening the feelings of distrust.

From November 2012 until June 2013, the protests against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood essentially never stopped, and the violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and anti–Muslim Brotherhood protesters also continued. Meanwhile, the country was facing an economic crisis, which had not started under Morsi’s rule, but which worsened as the Morsi government instituted austerity measures and the country began to experience severe, alternating shortages in diesel and electricity.5 Morsi’s administration and the Muslim Brotherhood blamed these crises entirely on corruption, citing moralistic arguments to place blame on people’s behaviors and suggesting that if people were more pious and moral, if Muslims were better Muslims, the economic troubles would eventually go away. This discourse included dismissal of economic grievances as disingenuous, and the administration proceeded to pass a law criminalizing protests and strikes. Not surprisingly, people grew tired of this rhetoric very quickly. In fact, even the corruption argument was politically unfortunate, as its persistence could only signal the administration’s own failure. Growing more politically isolated, and intent on governing exclusively, Morsi’s administration did not have enough political capital to institute any viable economic reforms and failed to present any serious vision to address the country’s economic woes. As a result of these worsening economic conditions and the administration’s failure to earn people’s confidence or to present a way forward, protests grew and dissent deepened.

In April 2013, the grassroots Tamarod movement began a petition calling for the public impeachment of Morsi, setting itself a goal of 15 million signatures.6 As the number of signatures increased, the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood began questioning them and started a counter-campaign, Tagarod, which literally means self-denial (that is, denying yourself for the sake of legitimacy and for the sake of Morsi).7 The June 30 protests signaled support for this process of public impeachment and for early elections and/or a referendum on Morsi’s term. Many saw Morsi’s first speech after these protests as a call for violence, since he essentially said that the price for legitimacy is his own blood, and, by the end of his speech, violence broke out. We saw what happened afterward: intervention by the military forces and Morsi’s ouster on July 3.

In my view, what was at stake after June 30 was the rest of the political structure—not just the democratic structure, but also the military and other state institutions. The advantageous arrangement the military had achieved under Morsi8 could not survive unless there was some form of stability, so military intervention was not so much to protect the military from the Muslim Brotherhood as to protect the military and the other state institutions from a new and rising protest movement.

That said, there are still many Egyptians interested in a process of trying to create a new political system that would usher the protest movement into more regularized and predictable institutions. The success or the failure of any particular roadmap is yet to be seen. All along, the Egyptian people have had different ideas about what could or should happen politically, and they continue to hold different views. There is also a wide range of opinions on whether and to what degree Islam should be involved in politics. These views will need to be worked out in the coming months, if not years. But what most people did agree on, and why they took to the streets on June 30, is a sense that the system they had at that moment was not working and could not continue.

I would like to make two points correcting how these events have been framed in many of the Western media accounts. First, it has been suggested that the June 30 movement was essentially a secular movement against Islamists. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of people who took to the streets on June 30 would never call themselves “secularists,” and, in fact, they would probably think of “secularists” as their enemies. Most are pious, conservative Muslims who are not attacking Islam and definitely should never be called “Islamophobic.” It is simply ignorant to characterize the events in this way. What happened was a particular revolt against a specific form of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had continuously referenced religion at each and every political moment.9 The kind of sectarian language they routinely used is actually most offensive to pious and conservative Muslims who happen to disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood. The notion that Islam becomes monopolized by the voice of one political group, and that if you don’t support that group for any reason you become an enemy of Islam, is more problematic for pious Muslims.

Another way these events have been mischaracterized is to call them a “coup.” The term appears to be used because any movement of the military against a head of state has been defined and named a coup. But naming is an act of power, a categorization that imposes a certain value system on an event and claims a specific power differential between the namer and the named. The term “coup” is not merely a descriptive term; it carries a moral judgment, implying that a proper democratic process is something only the West and the global North know well and that such a process comes to people in the global South with a user manual, the implication being that if those people don’t simply take and apply it as deemed, they will be told (as Time magazine essentially did) that they are good protesters but the world’s worst democrats. In fact, the term fails to provide any analytical insights. Instead, it clouds the picture by grouping a number of events, all called “coups” into one category. The term “coup” allows the centers of discourse in the global North to identify the events in Egypt with a longer history of colonial and postcolonial events, such that political change happening in Egypt and in the global South is perceived in terms of a continual process of failing states in the postcolonial environment.

The insistence on the term “coup” has to be understood within the context of power relations that exist between the global North and the global South. Naming the events in Egypt a coup is actually a way of reinforcing prevailing forms of authority and reclaiming the higher moral ground. Instead, what we really saw happening in Egypt was a popular uprising on June 30 and a military intervention in July. This is the most accurate description of the events, and it puts them on par with the military intervention in January 2011 that led to Mubarak’s removal. Of course, there were different reasons for the two interventions, and different results, but this is the way that I, and most Egyptians, perceive the events that occurred in the summer of 2013.

POSTSCRIPT—The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to rule more inclusively and to usher in new political institutions in post-revolution Egypt has dealt a significant blow to political Islam and to its ruling project. It also gave the military the opportunity to capitalize on its stance in June 2013, to claim significant moral and political capital, and to patronize an ultra-nationalist discourse that both justified the atrocious acts of violence against Muslim Brotherhood protesters and supported more authoritarian measures intended to limit the political sphere. As this analysis goes to print, Egyptians will be voting on a new constitution, which was drafted after June 2013 and which is expected to pass with huge margins. Seen in isolation, the new constitution is far more inclusive and representative of different political forces than the one drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, though it still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of liberties and civilian control of the military. However, the 2013 constitution is not voted upon in isolation, but rather in conjunction with the ultra-nationalist conservative discourse that threatens to foreclose the political sphere and to use still more brutal force against political opponents. At the same time, the deeper socioeconomic grievances that were at the heart of the protest movement since January 2011 remain unaddressed, and the new system, dominated by the military, does not appear to be able or willing to institute significant reforms that would introduce a more equitable distribution of wealth and provide more sustainable growth. The new government can only survive if it is able to gain people’s confidence, address their demands, and provide a serious process of accountability that guarantees reform and change without the collapse of the entire system. Whether this will happen through the next vote remains to be seen.


  1. Polls conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera).
  2. Egypt has a substantial urban population, estimated by some to be 60 percent of the total population.
  3. Initially, Morsi said that he preferred to be an interim president, resigning after the constitution was written, and he also stated that he preferred the parliamentary system to a presidential system.
  4. Morsi’s first constitutional declaration in August 2012, which gave him powers to remove the unpopular General Tantawi as head of the military forces and to appoint el-Sisi, was largely favorably perceived and didn’t result in protests.
  5. Under Mubarak’s rule, and under SCAF rule, there were also a number of crises related to subsidized bread, subsidized propane, and gasoline.
  6. Morsi had won with 13 million votes, so the idea was that 15 million signatures would signify public impeachment.
  7. The Islamist counter-campaign was poorly organized and was never taken seriously, since it really had no presence in the streets.
  8. Under Morsi’s December 2012 constitution, the military had absolute independence from civilian oversight, with all national security decisions to be made by the SCAF, the president, and the speaker of parliament.
  9. This started with the very first ballot in March 2011, when Islamist leaders in general called the ballot “the battle of the boxes,” using the classical Arabic term that was used for Mohammed’s battle, implying a holy war against the non-Islamists. And during the parliamentary elections, they called the competing party (the Egyptian block) the “Crusaders Block,” again using inflammatory sectarian language.

Ahmed Ragab is the Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School. He is a physician, historian, and scholar of the medieval and modern Middle East. This is an edited and revised version of a “Religion in the News” talk Ragab delivered at the Center for the Study of World Religions on September 16, 2013.

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