Piecing Together Egypt’s Rupture

September 12, 2013
By Alvin Powell, Harvard Gazette

Egypt’s unrest has its root, ironically, in democratic success: the Muslim Brotherhood’s overwhelming ballot box victories, Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy, said during a roundtable last week at Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In elections following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood captured the president’s office and a parliamentary majority. While those victories were bad news for Egyptian liberals and the remnants of the former regime, alone they weren’t enough to prompt this summer’s military action, according Masoud.

Instead, Masoud said, it was the prospect of continued electoral dominance by Brotherhood candidates at all levels that led to the move.

“The Muslim Brotherhood was just too good at winning elections,” Masoud said. “If the liberals actually thought they could win an election, they would have channeled [public dissatisfaction] into the next election. … The opposition was not confident it could beat the Brotherhood in an election, so it needed the military.”

In July, after massive anti-government protests, the Egyptian military suspended the constitution and removed President Mohamed Morsi from office, sending Brotherhood leaders into hiding and the group’s supporters into the streets in protest. More than 1,000 have been killed.

On Sept. 5, a conference room and nearby hallways at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies were packed for a discussion that in addition to Masoud included E. Roger Owen, the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History Emeritus, and grad student Sarah Moawad, who recently returned to campus after spending several weeks in Egypt.

Moawad shared observations of the anti-government protests in Cairo and Alexandria and said dissatisfaction with Morsi’s government had been widespread in the weeks before he was removed from office, with long gas lines, irregular electricity supplies, falling tourist dollars, and overall economic decline key factors. In addition, the predominately Muslim Egyptian people were tired of the Brotherhood telling them how to be Muslim, Moawad said.

The military was never removed from its lofty position atop Egyptian society, Masoud said, despite claims to the contrary. The Brotherhood, in fact, went to great lengths to assure the military that they weren’t at odds, he said.

Those who view the takeover as a response to the imposition of religious government on what had been a secular state are missing how conservative most of Egyptian society is on religious matters, Masoud said. For most Egyptians, the religious aspects of Brotherhood rule were not a big problem. He also disagreed with those who saw it as an expression of dissatisfaction over very real economic difficulties. read more

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Center for Middle Eastern Studies Director William Granara introduces Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud (sitting, from left), A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History Emeritus Roger Owen, and graduate student Sarah Moawad.

Center for Middle Eastern Studies Director William Granara introduces Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud (sitting, from left), A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History Emeritus Roger Owen, and graduate student Sarah Moawad.

Photo Credit: Kris Snibbe

“The Muslim Brotherhood was just too good at winning elections,” said Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy.