Egypt's top military leader has announced that President Mohamed Morsy has been removed from power. The move followed massive anti-government protests as demonstrators massed in Tahrir Square to express frustration with Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood. But what happens next? Fareed speaks with CNN and shares his thoughts on how the U.S. should respond, whether this is a “soft coup” and where Egypt may be heading.
What does it say to you when you hear reports such as the major state-run newspaper in Egypt, Al-Ahram, apparently taken control of by the Egyptian military?
Well, it tells us that the Egyptian military has very large equities in this whole thing. Remember, this is a country run by the military for seven decades, ever since Nasser in the 1950s. It has enormous power and economic privileges. Of course it’s worried about the country. But it's trying to make sure, among other things, that its power and privileges stay intact.
It puts the Obama administration in a bit of an awkward situation. On the one hand, the U.S. wants to support a democratically-elected president of Egypt. On the other, the U.S. clearly has not been very happy with some of the policies of this leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was democratically elected, albeit by a narrow margin, 52 percent to 48 percent. What kind of influence does the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state have on what's happening on the streets of Egypt right now?
It is a very complicated situation, very tough for the Obama administration. You want to support democracy. But this has been a democratic leader who has governed badly, who has abused power, who has ignored the minority, and it has produced a street protest.
So the American ambassador gave us an interview in which she said we're against military intervention. We think that would be the wrong idea. Some people criticized that here because it was seen as supporting Morsi. On the other hand, it may have stayed the military's hand in the sense of preventing a kind of outright coup, and what you're seeing, perhaps, is a more soft or gentle version of that. They are talking about new elections. They are talking about a civilian head of government.
On the other hand, Obama then tried to present Morsi with an option, which is, you promise fresh elections and that can diffuse the situation. So you see them trying to thread this needle, support the democratic process while recognizing there's this huge street opposition.
Don't forget, no matter what they [the Obama administration] do, they're going to be damned if they do, damned if they don't. That's why I think they're best off just withdrawing somewhat. Don't forget…the Muslim Brotherhood…is the strongest political movement in Egypt. They believe that after 80 years in the wilderness they have been elected. And they're not going to go home and be quiet.
The crucial question is, is this described as a coup or not? You notice that the military is trying very hard to make the case that this is not a coup and that, therefore, those triggers that have been talked about, the cutoff of U.S. aid and such, do not apply.
But just looking at it plainly. It's very difficult to see how the removal of a democratically elected government by the military would not be described as some kind of a coup, whatever follows. So the question is if they can come up with a way to convince both the United States and the world and the Egyptian people that there is a very quick path back. Then, perhaps, there's a way to square the circle, because you can have a two-month suspension or something. But I think it all depends on getting back on track democratically – and fast.
How quickly Morsy was removed is almost breathtaking.
It's absolutely breathtaking. And it's unusual that the military would choose to put themselves back in this position, because remember the military has remained very powerful throughout this process. They have retained all their economic power and privileges. They still run vast swathes of the country. They still have a budget that is a black box.
No one is allowed – not the president, not parliament – to scrutinize the military budget. But they got involved, I think, because they saw the level of polarization in the country and the level of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood rising and decided that they could ride this wave. It's a fairly dangerous move, because what we are now witnessing is this process of a soft coup. The next step is surely going to be that the Muslim Brotherhood will react to it.
Remember, they were able to survive and flourish through five or six decades of complete persecution, an outright ban on their activities. So they're not going to go anywhere. They're going to come out. And they will be out for blood. I don't mean that literally, but I mean in the sense they will be very passionate about trying to push back on this. And that suggests that the tensions in Egypt are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.
General Al-Sisi made a point of surrounding himself with the leader of Al-Azhar University, one of the major Muslim universities in Egypt. And the leader of the Copts and Mohamed ElBaradei. Seemingly wanting to give the Egyptian military some cover that this is not strictly a military coup. What do you make of this?
They’ve tried to portray this as a kind of restoration of democracy. Look, there's a possibility that it succeeds. In a sense, there are two stories here, two historical parallels. There was a Turkish coup in which an Islamist party was ousted by the military, and the military said, you know, let's have a do-over. You guys went too far. We're not going to rule, but we're going to throw it back, have new elections. That worked out all right.
The Algerian case, where the military displaced what appeared to be the ruling majority that was Islamist – that unleashed ten years of violent civil war, hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of peoples displaced.
So I very much hope what we end up with is something closer to the Turkish “soft coup” than the Algerian one. But all of it will depend on this central question, which is, how will the Muslim Brotherhood react? Because what is different in this case from almost any other case is you have a very well organized political movement, the Brotherhood, that has been in existence for 80 years, that has been well organized for 30 or 40 years, which may have only about 25 percent or 30 percent of Egypt with it. But that's pretty hardcore support, and that's the kind of support that goes out on the streets and stays out on the streets.