Before 3 July 2013 enters the annals of U.S.-backed anti-Islamist coups it is worth noting that Mohamed Morsi’s ill-fated presidency differs from prior cases. Whereas the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Hamas posed a threat (however chimeric) to Washington, Morsi quickly won plaudits from U.S. officials. Meanwhile, he menaced the domestic opposition with an autocratic panache. When Morsi exceeded his elected mandate and refused to share power, secularists and Salafists rose against him—while the U.S. Embassy in Cairo urged restraint.
The distinctness of the Egyptian example limits how much one can generalize from this month’s events to the past overthrow or future prospects of elected Islamists. Morsi’s tenure diverged from other cases in three key respects: his assault upon rival state institutions; his alignment with U.S. foreign policy; and his adversarial relationship with more conservative Islamists.
Speaking a week ago to ABC, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said the Egyptian military’s takeover displayed “all the ingredients, political science-wise, of a coup.” Referring to how the army had shut down pro-Morsi television stations and detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders, he added: “It’s every ingredient of a full police state.” True enough, but if those are the ingredients of autocracy, el-Haddad’s colleagues in the presidential palace had been baking the same pie since last November. That’s when Morsi executed what was, “political science-wise,” a self-coup, or auto-golpe, by placing himself and the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly above judicial review. Although Morsi magnanimously let his supreme powers expire after voters approved the constitution in a referendum, his supporters besieged Egypt’s highest court to ensure it could not thwart the president.
In subsequent months, Morsi used a familiar bag of dirty tricks against his opponents while his partisans captured the state. A caretaker legislature, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to weaken the judiciary, thugs menaced television stations critical of Morsi, and the public prosecutor targeted the country’s most trenchant dissidents. El-Haddad’s observation notwithstanding, the 3 July coup is not a post hoc validation of Morsi’s own power grab. While some observers may liken the fallen president to Salvador Allende, his tactics recall the worst years of Ferdinand Marcos and Alberto Fujimori, democratically elected presidents who clutched more power than voters gave them.
For the same reason that Morsi belongs in the company of Marcos, it is fallacious to place him and the Brotherhood alongside Islamist parties who were never so repressive. Before the FIS even built a legislative majority, much less started legislating, the Algerian army froze elections. In the Palestinian Authority, Hamas sought to build a bi-partisan coalition after its January 2006 election victory—only to be rebuffed by Fatah, which was in turn being egged on by the George W. Bush administration. The reported U.S.-backed coup attempt of 2007 was a final attempt to prevent the two sides from forming a national unity government. In sum, analogies between Morsi and other cases should start with his assault on institutions, not his religious ideology.
In fact, when it came to faith and politics, Morsi demonstrated just how malleable and pragmatic the Brotherhood could be. Less than three years after calling for war on Israel, Morsi was preserving Egypt’s traditional role in guaranteeing Israeli security, including enforcing the embargo on the Gaza Strip. When Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised his “personal leadership” and claimed, “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” For years, the Brotherhood had reassured U.S. policymakers that their interests would be safe on its watch. These signals were unlike anything communicated by the FIS or Hamas. Further, Morsi backed words with actions by continuing the foreign policies Washington relished under Hosni Mubarak. When he fell from power he broke the mold: Unlike prior elected Islamists, Morsi was ousted not because of his attitudes toward U.S. priorities but despite them.
While ingratiating himself with the White House and State Department, Morsi alienated Egyptians, including many who had voted for him. Probably the most significant defection from the president’s camp was the Nour Party comprising the ultra-traditional Salafists. Latecomers to the political scene—they had not opposed Mubarak—the Salafists excelled in the elections of 2011-2012 and formed the largest parliamentary bloc after the Brotherhood. In the runoff presidential election of summer 2012 they threw their weight behind the Brotherhood’s standard-bearer. Once Morsi took office, however, Nour leaders were shut out from influential cabinet posts and governorships. So narrow was Morsi’s inner circle that it would not share power with fellow Islamists who rivaled the Brotherhood in their national popularity.
The trans-Atlantic alliance and intra-Islamist rift of Morsi’s administration made strange bedfellows. Between the start of Tamarod protests on 30 June and the coup three days later, Salafists joined with Egyptian liberals in calling for Morsi be deposed. The Obama administration, meanwhile, urged a political solution. Here it is worth emphasizing that the U.S. government liked Morsi not despite his Islamism and not because of his electoral credentials, but because he promoted U.S. goals. Had Morsi opposed U.S. national security objectives, U.S. officials would probably have supported his ouster (and cited his autocratic record as pretext). But he didn’t. And they didn’t. Consequently, Morsi—despite his polarizing downfall—bore little resemblance to his peers in the FIS and Hamas. He was something new: a veteran Islamist toppled after contesting elections and promoting U.S. strategy.
Two weeks into al-Sisi’s transition, the military has committed the worst shooting massacre since Luxor 1997, sectarianism is on the rise, and the Brotherhood is boycotting political negotiations. A spike in instability after the putsch, however, does not retroactively democratize Morsi’s regime. Just halfway through his first year in office, Egypt’s first freely elected president was following an authoritarian playbook. Rather than making his office one pillar in a democratic infrastructure, Morsi trampled on the judicial and media institutions that would have balanced and stabilized his rule. In less than 12 months, he took Egypt from proto-democracy to proto-dictatorship.
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 Issandr el-Amrani, “Analysis: Morsi’s Auto-Golpe,” The Arabist (blog), 22 November 2012, .
 Jason Brownlee, “Spring of Fury in Egypt,” Jadaliyya, 29 March 2013, .
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 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Morsi’s Slurs Against Jews Stir Concern,” New York Times, 14 January 2013, .
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 David D. Kirkpatrick, “To Block Gaza Tunnels, Egypt Lets Sewage Flow,” New York Times, 20 February 2013, .
 Alastair Beach, “Egypt Analysis: Post-Morsi Chaos is the Moment the Salafist al-Nour Party has Waited For,” The Independent, 7 July 2013, .
 Andrew Ver Steegh, “Off the Egyptian Press: Brotherhood and Salafist Tensions,” Egypt Source, the Atlantic Council, 22 February 2013, .
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 Alan Cowell and Douglas Jehl, “Luxor Survivors Say Killers Fired Methodically,” New York Times, 24 November 1997, .
 Nagaa Hassan, “Sectarian Incitement and Attacks, 30 June to 9 July 2013,” Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 15 July 2013, .