COUP DE GRACE

If 5200 years of continuous history is any guide, then rule by autocrat is as much a part of Egypt as the Nile itself.

If 5200 years of continuous history is any guide, then rule by autocrat is as much a part of Egypt as the Nile itself. From the pharaohs to the Caesars, through to the sultans, pashas and military colonels of more recent times, Egypt has known rule by a popularly elected president for only one solitary year of its existence.

That era began on June 30 last year when Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood was sworn in as president for four years, and ended at 9.04pm on Wednesday when the head of Egypt's armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, announced Mursi's immediate dismissal.

In 2011 it took three weeks of sustained, often bloody protests before Egypt's military finally acted to force then president Hosni Mubarak to step down.

This time around it took just three days for the military to respond after millions of protesters turned out last Sunday in a carefully choreographed national day of action demanding Mursi's resignation.

And far from deploring the military's intervention, the hundreds of thousands of ostensibly democracy-minded citizens who had packed Cairo's Tahrir Square in anticipation of the announcement on Wednesday greeted the news with elation.

"How many revolutions did it take the French to settle on the system of government they have now?" said Cairo architect Ramsis Hanna. "OK, we're two and counting, but it doesn't mean that democracy is finished. In fact it is the reverse. We are saving the hope of a democratic future by protecting the country from an out-of-control president that was trying to remake Egyptian society."

On Thursday evening, fighter jets marked the swearing-in of Egypt's new interim President, Adly Mansour, the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, with a series of passes over Tahrir Square while trailing the national colours of red, white and black, and further underscoring the military's triumph.

That Egyptian prosecutors had already opened a criminal investigation into accusations that the deposed president Mursi had insulted the judiciary, and that police were busy rounding up prominent Muslim Brotherhood members, or that there was no indication of when Egyptians might get to vote for a new president, troubled the cheering throngs in Tahrir not the slightest.

"There will be trials, they will be punished, we will know who brought the foreign funding into Egypt, the real corruption!" thundered Khairy Ramadan, a popular television talk-show host.

According to Naguib Abadir, a member of the opposition Free Egyptians Party, the beginning of the end for Mursi came last November when he enraged his political opponents by releasing a draft constitution that many believed would fatally undermine Egypt's secular traditions, and which placed far too much power in the hands of the president.

"This was when we saw the real hand of the Brotherhood, their real intentions to transform Egypt from a secular state into an Islamist state," Abadir said. "His attempt to force through such a dangerous document set him on a collision course with the people. That is what mobilised the turnout last Sunday of millions of people across Egypt demanding new elections."

Abadir became agitated at suggestions that the military's intervention would set a dangerous precedent for the next elected president.

Pointing to a television screen showing the sea of people jamming Tahrir Square and calling for Mursi's immediate departure, Abadir asked how that could be interpreted as anything but an expression of popular will.

"Tell me what part of this is a military coup? Have you ever seen a clearer, more peaceful expression of the will of a nation? Ever since his outrageous power grab of November 22, Mursi lost his right to be called a legitimate president."

Who would have guessed such a turn of events back in February 2011, when many of the same people had stood in the same place to cheer Mubarak's downfall, the former air force chief who had ruled Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian manner for nearly 30 years?

Not only had Mubarak's surrender appeared to pave the way for genuine democratic rule in the region's largest country, it also cemented the notion of an Arab Spring that would sweep from office the collection of tyrants who had held power across the Middle East and north Africa since the 1960s.

To be sure, the next to fall was the brutal regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, while a concerted rebellion in Syria was soon threatening that country's President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet 30 months on, much of that hope for progressive change has dissipated.

A fractured Libya remains in danger of slipping into civil war, while Syria is in the midst of a bloody sectarian conflict that has claimed more than 90,000 lives with no end in sight and which threatens to spill over into neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Iraq and Israel.

In Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion after a 26-year-old fruiterer named Mohamed Bouazizi, set fire to himself in protest against his country's endemic corruption, power is also now in the hands of an Islamist government, albeit a relatively moderate one.

The mosque of al-Azhar, which was first dedicated in the year 970, is Egypt's oldest mosque and is considered one of Islam's most important centres of scholarship.

One of al-Azhar's leading clerics is Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Zaher, a man so devoted to God that the calloused mark on his forehead - from prostrating himself in prayer - is the size of an ice-hockey puck.

Yet despite his ultra-conservative appearance, Sheikh Abdel Zaher told Fairfax Media that he was not impressed with Mursi's attempts to refashion Egyptian society along more rigidly Islamic lines, and then offered the following diagnosis for his downfall.

"He was guilty of bad behaviour," said Abdel Zaher, who was also at pains to stress the political impartiality of al-Azhar. "He and his people tried to take all the important positions of Egypt for themselves, and the people rejected this. He became like something of the old regime.

"What has happened today, this is what the people wanted, and it is a warning to the next president that he must treat the people with fairness, justice, respect and dignity, something that Mursi failed to do."

Across the road from al-Azhar is a traditional Arab bazaar popular with tourists known as Khan al-Khalili, and which is now virtually empty.

"Occupancy is usually around 95 per cent," said Atef Abdel Galil, who has worked as a waiter at the Fishawi's Coffeehouse for 25 years.

Once a favourite haunt of Egypt's Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, business at the 260-year-old cafe is "now 15 per cent to 20 per cent occupancy" said Galil.

"I voted for Mursi," admits Galil. "I recognised the Brotherhood as an organisation that helped the poor, and I believed that because the members of the Brotherhood have suffered so much persecution and been put in jail over so many decades, I thought I could trust them. It turns out that electing Mursi was the biggest mistake of our lives."

Galil lists Mursi's failure to restore order and confidence in the Egyptian economy in the wake of civil unrest that followed the 2011 revolution as number one on his list of mistakes.

"He managed the country with no plan on how to improve things, and we have ended up with chaos," said Galil. "They [the Muslim Brotherhood] have no idea how to behave as politicians, they should stick to religion, to caring for their own people with charity, and they should stay out of politics forever because this is not what they are good at."

The best organised religious and political movement in Egypt today, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the city of Ismailia in 1928 by school teacher Hassan al-Banna with the stated mission of restoring the way of life prescribed for Muslims by the prophet Muhammad and the Koran.

Banned for much for its existence due to its increasing use of violent tactics to further its aims, the Brotherhood's call for a return to the "true path" appealed to Muslims the world over, making it the driving force behind the radicalisation of Islamic politics throughout the 20th century.

One of the Brotherhood's most influential current members is Essam el-Erian, who is also vice-chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's parliamentary arm.

Several hours before Mursi was formally dismissed from office, Erian told Fairfax Media that he felt "optimistic" about the movement's future.

"We are strong. Strong! Don't ever underestimate the strength of our resolve. Forcing Dr Mursi from the presidency would be to trample on the democratic rights of the Egyptian people, it will be a terrible, terrible mistake. A fundamental betrayal that will never be forgotten," he said.

"It was the people who voted to put this man in office, it will be the people who will act to put him back into office should anyone claim to have removed him by illegal means. We are ready to put our lives in the way. I tell you that very seriously."

Equally defiant prior to Mursi's removal was another Brotherhood member of parliament, Mohamed Beltagy, who was unable to contain his anger as he questioned how any pro-democracy supporter could endorse a military coup d'etat.

"What would be the legal basis for removing the president from office? Where in the constitution does it say that a president can be removed because a military man decides that he is not happy with the government? Where is the legitimacy? Where is the justice?" Beltagy shouted in an interview conducted on the streets of Nasr City, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold.

Mobbed by supporters as he spoke, Beltagy, said he would refuse to recognise any attempt to remove Mursi from office.

"We are seeing the thugs who used to rule Egypt trying to get back into control. They are using the police, the media, the army, and other corrupt means to discredit our government only because not everything goes their way. What would the Americans say if the generals pushed out Obama against the law after only one year? This would be impossible. This is the face of injustice."

Another Mursi stronghold this week was Cairo University, where supporters gathered in front of the domed auditorium where newly elected United States President Barack Obama delivered a historic speech in 2009 that attempted to define a new beginning to the relationship between the US and Muslims around the world.

On Tuesday night violent clashes in front of the university resulted in the deaths of at least 19 people.

According to final year medical student Abdel Rahman Mustafa, 23, who has been manning a field hospital with other Cairo University medical and nursing students since last weekend, the most depressing aspect of the violence was that it appeared to be conducted with the assistance and even encouragement of the police.

"I am myself an opponent of Mursi, I do not agree with what he has tried to do to this country, but I am disgusted at the extreme violence of the opposition protesters who came here to cause injury and were helped by the police. How can we be a state if the police do not act to protect innocent people?" Mustafa said.

"They came here armed with guns and opened fire. We have been treating many gunshot wounds, and many have died here," he said, pointing to various bloodstains on the asphalt. "I am for democracy, and I am definitely not for the illegitimate overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president."

So, what comes next?

After the 2011 revolution, the youth leaders who convinced middle-class Egyptians that people power was enough to topple president Mubarak virtually packed up immediately and went home, leaving the political negotiations to more seasoned professionals.

Tony Khalife, a Lebanese journalist who has become hugely popular in Egypt as the host of a nightly talk-show dedicated to castigating the Muslim Brotherhood's flawed governing abilities, thinks this time it might be different.

"Yes, the military played the final role, but it was the young people who organised it. They are the ones who again mobilised one of the biggest protests in history, and this time I don't think they will walk away. In my opinion they planned it properly. The transition last time was very messy. This time, if the first few days are anything to go by, my hope is that it will be much better organised."

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