It’s been over a month since the Egyptian army overthrew Mohamed Morsi at the demand of huge masses of Egyptian citizens, who went out in every square and every street calling for Morsi to step down. Morsi would not step down, thereby forcing the military to isolate him and pass on power to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, now Egypt’s Interim President, Adly Mansour. Since then both the media and political circles worldwide have been polarized over whether to call it a revolution or a coup d’état, with most international media outlets calling it a coup.
The US administration has also been indecisive on the issue, declaring “strong concern” over the army’s actions, but stopping short of calling it a coup. Gradually, it seemed the US was more inclined to describe what happened as a popular revolution, until yesterday that is.
A few days ago in Cairo, Senator John McCain was anything but indecisive at his press conference. McCain clearly stated, “We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsi government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets... We've also said that the circumstances of [Morsi’s] removal was a coup,” words that left many to wonder whether there has been yet another shift in the US policy towards what happened in Egypt.
But what did happen in Egypt? And is it important to label it a “coup” or a “revolution?”
To my mind, what happened does not fall under a pre-determined label because it’s not something that history books have accounted for. What happened was an ousting of an elected president (his legitimacy is a different matter) by the military at the demand of the people. You cannot straight out call it a “coup” because it was at the popular demand of millions of Egyptian citizens; and you cannot straight out call it a “revolution” because the final move was carried out by the military, who remains very much a part of the political scene today even with an interim civilian president in power. So how will it go down in history books?
Regardless of the fact that history is written by the winner (and therefore it will probably end up being called a revolution anyway), the proper description of what’s happening in Egypt will depend on what takes place during the next 6-12 months, and how much the army will continue to be part of the political process during and after that time. General El-Sisi is currently Egypt’s number-one man, at least in terms of popularity. The cool general in the dark sunglasses who salvaged the country from the Muslim Brotherhood is loved and trusted by many. If he chooses to resign his military post and run for presidency, there’s a good chance he would become our next president, in which case, in my humble opinion, we would be back to military rule. However, I do believe General El-Sisi is smarter than this, and will reserve for himself the unique place in history of the army general who listened to the call of the people and did not seize the opportunity to rule. And that would be a very unique place in history indeed. However, that would not mean we are out of the danger of military rule. The army will probably have a candidate somewhere in the election, whether a straight out retired army general, or a civilian with army inclinations. If we end up with the first option as the winning president, we will be back to military rule, and this would have been a coup d’état. Our challenge now is to pressure the military to get out of politics as much and as fast as possible. To the extent that our next president is remote from the army, and to the extent that the army is remote from politics, this will have been a popular revolution. We will not get there completely in one election circle, maybe in two or more, but we need to start. We need to see the Egyptian army back at the barracks, and a civilian government in rule. Only then will the demands of the January 25 revolution have begun to be fulfilled.
Rasha Abdulla is associate professor and former chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo. You can tweet to her at @RashaAbdulla