Egyptians and observers worldwide just woke up to the shocking but not un-expected news of the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi, the first ever democratically elected president in Egypt. Depending on which camp you align with, this is either a correction and restoration of the democratic project initiated following the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak just over 29 months ago, or simply a military coup against a legitimate President whose only crime is that he is an ‘Islamist’ president representing the ‘Justice and Freedom’, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
These troublesome developments and for a variety of reasons pose major challenges to Egyptian society, their political elites, the region and the world at large.
From the perspective of the domestic Egyptian politics, this is a major setback to the democratic project embarked upon following the euphoric toppling of Mubarak early in 2011. It is a setback because it puts into a question the whole notion of democratic transformation which sees an unelected body, the military council, intervenes and overthrows an elected president simply because there mass popular demonstrations. The opposition parties, mostly of secular leftist lineages, have called for early elections but also encouraged this course of action implicitly perhaps but certainly do not seem bothered by the notion of the military being ‘king makers’ again in Egyptian politics even in the case of a democratically elected president.
But there is enough blame to go around in this crisis. Indeed, President Morsi himself has a lot to answer for in terms of not judging properly the public mood and not saving the democratic project by offering early elections to test his own claims for legitimacy. Early elections happen even in the most robust of democracies, so had he acted in a statesman like manner and called for early elections, perhaps the military would have not been able to come back to centre stage by toppling him as President, appointing an interim leader, suspending the constitution and overssing the formation of a new technocratic government. One of Morsi’s key mistakes is not to understand the nature of governing in a transitional phase which requires more deliberative, inclusive consultative type of politics. His push for ‘islamising’ key institutions did not go down well with the electorate including those who voted for him in last year's elections.
More broadly, these events do not bode well for other Arab Spring countries and all of those calling for democratisiation of Middle Eastern state regimes. Even the American President has expressed 'deep concerns' about the military intervention against a freely elected President and called for the return to civilian rule as son as possible. The reason for thisconcern, is that from now on there will be a perception that democratic elections will not carry the same assurances that the people’s votes will ultimately decide on who governs a society. And that is why leaders in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere will be very nervous watching events unfolding in Cairo.