Overnight in Egypt the military suspended the country's constitution and removed President Mohammed Morsi from power, following massive popular protests.
It is clearly a coup, even if the military has, I suspect, mounted it reluctantly: on the one hand not wanting to run the country again, on the other hand concerned by the instability and probably egged on by the old political and economic establishment.
The ironies and incongruities are obvious and multiple: Egypt's first democratically-elected president overthrown by protests that were probably bigger than those that overthrew the country's long time dictator, Hosni Mubarak; protesters celebrating a coup mounted by the very people whom many of the same protesters were decrying as thugs and dictators more than a year ago; and Egypt's democratic transition back in the hands of the same people whose original sins of commission and omission after Mubarak's overthrow bear a significant part of the blame for the current political deadlock.
As I noted in an earlier post, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's predicament was largely of their own making. While it is true that some parts of the political and bureacratic elite were never going to accept the Muslim Brotherhood in power, there is no question that Morsi and the Brotherhood undermined their legitimacy by failing to build a broad consensus across the political and social spectrum.
The fact that the Brotherhood either turfed out or lost some of its more moderate leaders who understood the importance of building political bridges, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Futtouh (who went on to run for president), hampered it in this regard. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to count the movement out now. If it has demonstrated anything in the 80-odd years of its existence, it is the capacity for survival.
There is a broader issue here, however. The Brotherhood put its own political interests ahead of the nation's, but so far, so has pretty much everyone else, including the military. The failure to build a political consensus to consolidate the democratic transition is not just the Brotherhood's fault — every political actor bears responsibility for it.
Indeed, the challenge now will be for opposition forces to show magnanimity towards a politically-wounded Brotherhood and not force it out of politics altogether. But I would not be betting on it, so the political situation will probably become even more polarised.
Moreover, forcing Morsi from power, particularly in this way, is hardly going to solve the other problems that undermined the President. It is not clear, for example, that the military will be any better at re-booting the democratic transition than it was at managing it the first time. Nor is it clear that anyone will do any better at reviving Egypt's deteriorating economic fortunes. Sustaining popular support and legitimacy will be an enormous challenge for any successor to Morsi.
This is not merely a question of how you solve specific political or economic problems, but how you manage the politics and popular expectations of economic and political reform. The Brotherhood showed that it was bad at this, but I am not sure there is anyone on the political scene who would do a better job. How do you manage a political environment where everyone can agree on what they are against (at the moment it is the Brotherhood; who knows who or what it will be tomorrow) but where few can agree on who or what they are for?
While many are rightly lauding the current protests as a great example of people power, the cold hard reality is that you cannot run the country from Tahrir Square.
Photo by Flickr user TripleMs.