It took Egypt only two years after its first taste of democracy to give the latest demonstration of Africa’s abiding paradox: every flower of hope is turned sooner, rather than later, into the weed of despair. On 3 July, the Egyptian army deposed Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. This followed four days of massive protests by crowds exceeding the multitudes that massed on Tahir Square for eighteen days in 2011 to force life-president Hosni Mubarak out of power. For a country whose politics is as used with the military as its famous pyramids are fixed to the ground, the 2011 uprising was not just one more chapter in the so-called Arab Spring: it was something in the order of a tectonic movement. And it raised expectations of the new Egyptian democracy sky-high.
Entered Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, who won the ensuing election by the thin majority of 51.7% of the vote. Morsi promised but failed to meet those (Pyramid of) Giza-large expectations by failing to lead a government “for all Egyptians.” He succumbed to the disease of African leaders who interpret every mandate, however won — whether through “free and fair” or shamelessly rigged elections — as a licence to substitute the party’s will for that of the nation. Accordingly, Morsi sought in November last year to reserve extensive powers for himself through a constitutional declaration that would also entrench Islamic laws. After the people called his bluff by returning to Tahrir Square, Morsi backed down but not without retaining enough of his intentions as to embitter and alienate his more liberal and secular-minded fellow citizens. As it happened, they were the greater majority of Egyptians demanding bread and not burqas. Morsi’s first major test should have given him good warning about the danger of being seen not as the president of Egypt but of a nation called the Muslim Brotherhood.
And it is the problem of power and alienation that concerns me most about Morsi’s fall. For it is yet too early to say whether or not the manner of its occurrence signifies a victory for democracy or for autarchy — whether or not 3 July will henceforth be celebrated by Egyptians as the day the revolution which ended thirty years of Mubarak’s autocracy was re-launched, according to Mohammed ElBaradei, the most influential secular voice in quasi-theocratic Egypt. What we know is that the people called on the army to sack their elected president, and that they cheered when a general obliged them. That, to me, leaves only one question to be asked: When did Morsi lose the confidence of the people, thus turning promise to betrayal so soon after the ecstasy of the revolution?
If Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood were capable of sober reflection on their brief sojourn in power, they would admit that it was the moment of their constitutional overreach. More precisely, when they failed even after the outrage that greeted it to understand the mood of the people. Governed by the credo of winner-takes-all, of electoral victory as a licence to substitute ego for equality, the party for the citizenry, they could never acknowledge the folly of their beliefs and the petty politics it fostered. Consequently, such a fundamental issue as the delimitation of constitutional powers in a nation attempting democracy for the first time was turned into an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. After all, an electoral “victory” is a mandate to scorn the people’s will.
As in our beleaguered country where the PDP in alliance with the irredeemably selfish ruling class arrogates to itself, through the National Assembly — a majority of whose occupants are of questionable ability and character — the sacred task of drawing up a constitution that reflects the genuine wishes and aspirations of the people. And that the process entails no more than a committee to review General Abacha’s military constitution of 1995. No surprise, then, that the president and his party are staunchly opposed to a sovereign national conference, the one option agreed upon by the reasonable majority as offering the most democratic process towards a people’s constitution for a secular, free, equitable and peaceful federal republic. What they can’t see while blinded by their inordinate greed and will to power is that the anger and frustration caused by an insensitive government is bound to lead to catastrophe, as the chaos and bloodshed in Cairo make abundantly clear. Even worse, the danger lurks always that the people, in their despair, would turn to the army or any rogue revolutionary band for their salvation. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi made the most of this reality in his speech: the armed forces, he said, could not ignore the calls on them by the masses to save the country.
“Tell me in what Egypt my people’s feet lie chained,” wrote the late Congolese poet, Tchicaya U Tam’si, in his great poem “The Scorner,” making indelible use of the fabled figure of Egypt as metaphor. Nigeria and the rest of Africa had better heed the terrifying news from Egypt where a president and his party ignored the people. The history of coups in our country and continent urges every so-called elected leader to turn, as fast as possible, from the credo of self first and last, and nation not at all or only by compulsion.