Can Egypt’s Military Trump the Ballot Box?

Egypt Army
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

AFRICANGLOBE – The street politics in Egypt have redefined the term “coup” in the politico-legal lexicon, writes Dan Kuwali.

The street politics in Egypt, which led to the overthrow of a legitimate leader through a popular uprising supported by the military, have redefined the term “coup” in the politico-legal lexicon.

Mohamed Morsi, a Western-educated Islamist who had been elected president in a close election a year earlier, was deposed on July 3, despite a conciliatory offer that he had made to form an interim coalition government to oversee parliamentary elections and revise the six-month-old constitution.

The country’s military chief, General Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi, declared that Morsi “did not achieve the goals of the people”.

The head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was sworn in the following day as interim president, claiming that the Egyptian people had given him the authority “to amend and correct” the revolution that had toppled the former ruler, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011.

The international community’s response to the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president was ambivalent and its condemnation of the political role being played by the military was less than strident – perhaps due to a shared Western distaste for Morsi’s Islamist agenda.

By contrast, the AU unequivocally determined that “the overthrow of the democratically elected president” amounted to “an unconstitutional change of government”, thereby suspending Egypt from the AU “until the restoration of constitutional order”.

The displacement of Morsi raises several questions: first, whether what happened was a coup; second, whether there were other options for the Egyptian people to remove Morsi; and third, the implications of the overthrow of a legitimate leader by popular protest on the AU’s principled stance on unconstitutional changes of government.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a coup d’état as a “sudden deposition of government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment – typically the military – to depose the extant government and replace it with another body, civilian or military”.

Accordingly, Morsi’s removal is a textbook example of a coup, regardless of the fact that General el-Sisi did not impose military rule but only played the role of guarantor of national integrity and stability.

The 2007 AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which informed the AU’s decision to suspend Egypt, prohibits perpetrators of an unconstitutional change of government from participating in subsequent elections or holding political office and also requires them to be prosecuted.

The question is whether the interim president and his deputy, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed elBaradei, among others, should be barred from elections and face prosecution for being accomplices by assuming political control.

Prior to the coup, the AU requested all Egyptian stakeholders to “find an appropriate response to the popular aspirations” according to the Egyptian constitution and intended to dispatch a group of eminent Africans to “assist in the initiation of a responsible and constructive dialogue”.

However, General el-Sisi changed the guard in Cairo before these emissaries boarded their plane, side-stepping possible options such as a referendum or a government of national unity leading to early elections.

Such options could have included the opposition capitalising on popular discontent against Morsi to achieve a majority in the impending parliamentary elections and amend the constitution to counterbalance the president’s powers.

A longer term option would have been to vote Morsi out of power.

To restore constitutional order and stability, the interim government should develop an all-inclusive national political dialogue, respect human rights and protect all citizens.

While popular protests manifest a robust democracy, to avoid anarchy and confusion, citizens in a multi-party dispensation ought to wait for a constitutionally set interval before removing an elected government through the ballot, not by the bullet.

Such a “putsch” defeats the purpose of the AU Charter on Democracy, which seeks adherence to the rule of law premised upon respect for, and the supremacy of, constitutional order, to ensure peace, security, and development in Africa.


By: Dan Kuwali is a senior researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.