This has been the central question the last few hours: did Morsi’s ouster constitute a coup? Many commentators have, rightly, pointed out that if this is a coup, at least it is a rather unusual one: it involved millions upon millions of protesters, broad agreement from societal players and anti-military factions, etc.
It is my view that this is, in fact, a coup; popular support is no substitute for the rule of law. But what is more: cynically, and not yet (as I’ve so far seen) commented upon, this is not a coup just against Morsi— it’s also a coup against the protests.
Ask yourself: what is the point of having millions upon millions of protesters on the streets? The point, normally, would be to force the elected President to act, at pains of sustained chaos and sure political trouble. This is why you bring so many protesters: to show the sizable population supporting your cause. What is more, it is precisely the fact that by strength of numbers you can force an elected leader’s hand which guarantees the legitimacy of your victory (if you secure one). No one will doubt, for example, the legitimate success of a mass labor protest that forces politicians to accede to higher wages.
But this is not what happened in Egypt. The irony of the Egyptian military’s actions today in Egypt is that, in a sense, they precisely pre-empted the success of the protests. President Morsi himself did not bow to the protests– it was not the millions of Egyptians that made Morsi change his ways (or, indeed, leave). It was the military that did so. But the military does not need millions upon millions of Egyptians to lock the President in his house. Could the military not have done the same had the protesters been half as many? What about a third?
The point is: since it was the military that forced Morsi out of power, it is the military that will be remembered. What will be remembered is that there was unrest, yes, but primarily that Morsi fell by a military coup. What will be remembered of El Baradei, for example, may less be his heroic leadership of the opposition in this moment, but his sheepish position as one of Al Sisi’s minions at the press conference.
We can speculate about various reasons why Egypt’s military may have wanted to prevent the independent departure of Morsi. Maybe it really was to prevent chaos. Or maybe it was to maintain army control over the post-Morsi process.
But at any rate, this should seem a grave matter for the protesters indeed, though they don’t seem to realize it. From the perspective of the narrative going down in history, the events will call into significant doubt the notion that it was really the independent strength of the protesters’ numbers that forced Morsi’s ouster. As such, it will make that it that much more difficult for Egypt’s secular opposition to turn today’s victory into lasting historic success.
For this reason, Egypt’s protesters should be frustrated. The military did not seal the victory over Morsi for them; it did not allow them the time to obtain such a victory in their own right.
[We may in general wonder why the Egyptian military is always so quick on the trigger in the presence of protests. Is it really for security concerns that it immediately announces ultimata to ruling leaders once protests erupt? More likely, perhaps, it just likes to stay ahead of events].