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Egypt: A decade on, experts divided whether coup could have been prevented

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hesitated before the coup, but experts question whether Egypt's military could have been contained
Then-Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi attends a welcome ceremony at Almaza military Airbase in Cairo shortly before launching a coup, .22 May, 2013 (AFP)

On the 10th anniversary of Egypt's coup, experts are split as to whether the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi was an inevitable outcome of tensions between democracy and the military, or if it could have been prevented.

On 3 July 2013, Egypt's military led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed Egypt's first democratically elected president from power. The day marked the beginning of a purge of Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood leaders that would morph into a wider crackdown on dissent targeting journalists, businesspeople and secular opponents of the military-led government.

The foremost cause of the collapse of Egypt's democratic transition was the military, Sharan Grewal, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a forthcoming book on Arab militaries and the Arab Spring, said. "It was aggrieved by democracy."

Grewal noted how Egypt's military actively stoked popular concerns about Morsi's tumultuous rule. Elected by narrow margins, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed leader was viewed with uncertainty by the country's secular opposition, some businesspeople and many in Egypt's sizable Christian minority.

The military has played a dominant role in Egypt since overthrowing the monarchy in 1952. Former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were all army men.

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"The mere presence of a politicised military like Egypt's made negotiations more difficult between the government and opposition," Grewal said. "For the secularists, why work with Morsi when you can work with the military and kick him out?"

"In Egypt… this empowered military… ultimately terminated the democratic transition," he said.

But David Kirkpatrick, a journalist with the New Yorker who served as the New York Times' Cairo bureau chief during the 2013 coup, challenged the notion that the democratic transition's fate was sealed.

"There was going to be conflict between the Egyptian military and a democratic transition. How that conflict gets resolved… I hesitate to say is anything but inevitable," he said at an event alongside Grewal hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) on Friday.

'Dismay and despair'

Kirkpatrick said the military was plagued by "fissures" over how to act in response to discontent with Morsi's presidency.

A telling case of the uncertainty in the months leading up to the coup, he said, was "dismay if not despair" in the ranks of Egypt's National Salvation Front - the united secular opposition to Morsi - that a coup might not take place at all.

'If Sisi and the generals didn't get a green light [from the US], they certainly got a yellow light'

- David Kirkpatrick, New Yorker Magazine

"From the moment of Mubarak's ouster up to the coup there were repeated attempts by the military to reassert their power, and time and time again they would back down," he said.

Sisi himself had secured the powerful position of defence chief under Morsi, and a transition to democracy wouldn't have been "totally unappealing" to him if it guaranteed his position and privileges, Kirkpatrick added.

Kirkpatrick said Sisi's hesitation to launch the coup even after he consolidated support within the army ranks puts a focus on the influence of external actors. "Had the Gulf not been tacitly offering an enormous amount of money, would Sisi have pulled off a coup? I have some doubts about that."

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Egypt was an epicentre in a battle between Gulf states for influence over the Middle East, with Qatar throwing its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood and the UAE and Saudi Arabia looking to crush the movement.

The Gulf states have since moved to patch up ties. Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has deposited billions of dollars in Egypt's central bank to aid Sisi's cash-strapped government. More recently, Gulf states have demanded a return on their investments.

'Conflicting US messages'

The US also sent mixed messages in the lead-up to the coup. The Obama administration's earlier decision to pull away from Mubarak as he faced popular protests was viewed as a betrayal by other Middle Eastern autocrats.

"Morsi was hearing from Obama some actual support for democracy and he naively thought that the US government was unitary," Kirkpatrick said.

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But Washington was torn whether to back the democratically-elected Morsi or Sisi, as some in the intelligence and defence agencies likely pushed for, particularly as protests against Morsi grew.

"Sisi and the generals around him were hearing two conflicting messages from the US. If they didn't get a green light, they certainly got a yellow light," Kirkpatrick said.

"It's not impossible to imagine that a different posture from the US might have had a different outcome," he added.

Egyptians flee across Mediterranean

When Sisi announced Morsi's ouster, he pledged to bring "national reconciliation" to the Arab world's most populous country. Instead of a promised roadmap to future elections and stability, Sisi has imposed an authoritarian rule that experts say surpasses anything Egypt witnessed under Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak.

Meanwhile, Egypt's economy is sinking. Surging inflation ‌and a currency crisis have thrust the middle class into poverty and more Egyptians are making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Egyptians were the most common nationality detected crossing the central Mediterranean in the first half of 2022, accounting for 20 percent of nationalities, according to the most recent data from the European Union's border agency Frontex.

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Sisi has tried to portray himself as reaching out to the opposition amid the economic crisis. He launched a national dialogue initiative widely decried by rights groups.

The government has hinted that presidential elections would be held later this year, but few expect them to be free or fair, with the family members of Sisi's only declared challenger arrested. Egyptian authorities have put an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in jail.

The anniversary of Egypt's coup comes as its neighbours see their own hopes for democracy erode.

In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has consolidated power in an authoritarian slide, courting the US-trained and funded military for support.

Meanwhile, Sudan's short-lived democratic transition has collapsed and Sudanese are trapped by brutal fighting between the army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and a paramilitary force led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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