Thoughts on the Coup in Egypt

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square in 2011

In the early hours of 12 April 2002, with massive anti-government protests filling the streets, members of the Venezuelan military abducted President Hugo Chávez and, promising new elections, installed an interim leader of their own choosing in his place. Large swaths of respectable international opinion praised the action — which was not called a coup — with The New York Times crowing in a now-infamous editorial that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

When Chávez, with the assistance of military loyalists and massive street protests of his own, returned triumphantly to office less than 48 hours after he was ousted, the Times was forced to issue a half-hearted admission of error. The abortive coup became widely acknowledged as a huge mistake, and its numerous defenders around the globe walked away with egg on their faces.

Respectable international opinion will likely take longer to come around after this week’s events in Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by his country’s military on Wednesday — “not a coup,” it is once again claimed — but unlike Chávez, Morsi probably won’t be coming back. The military has always been closer to the levers of power in Egypt than in Venezuela, and Morsi’s public support is not nearly as widespread as his late Venezuelan counterpart’s. But the one thing both events have in common — and let’s not fool ourselves here — is that they are both military coups carried out against democratically elected leaders.

None of this is meant to defend Morsi; he has autocratic tendencies and issued a decree last year concentrating excessive power in his own hands. Nor is this meant to dismiss the movement of millions out in the streets protesting against Morsi’s rule; the economic difficulties they face are immense, and they are right to expect accountability from their leaders. But once the immediacy of this week’s events has receded, once the history books are written, Morsi’s ouster will be remembered as a coup d’état not unlike other coups d’état. A tinge of inspiring “people power” perhaps, but more than the recommended dose of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

To spurn the 52 per cent of the Egyptian electorate that voted for Morsi in last year’s run-off presidential election is no solution to the heavy polarization the country faces, just like many other democracies, young and old. Before being overthrown, Morsi suggested the formation of a consensus coalition government in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. Was his offer sincere? Maybe, maybe not. But as his country’s elected leader, Morsi at least had a more legitimate claim to spearhead efforts at national reconciliation than the generals who have given Egyptians nothing but tyranny for decades.

Even if the military does facilitate new elections as promised, it almost certainly won’t allow Morsi, now in detention, to run, and the crackdown currently underway against his Muslim Brotherhood is sure to have a chilling effect. This is not a step forward for Egyptian democracy. Despite Morsi’s many faults, despite the unprecedented size of the protests, despite the celebrations and fireworks among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, this week’s coup d’état in Egypt is an unequivocal step back.

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On Egypt’s Presidential Election

Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi Announced Egypt's President

It’s official. More than one year after the overthrow of hated dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has won Egypt’s run-off presidential election with 51.7 percent support. This outcome was widely known ever since last weekend’s vote wrapped up. What was unknown was whether Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, would allow Morsi to take power. Apparently they will.

What did the Brotherhood have to do to achieve this concession? Party officials reportedly spent the week after the vote negotiating with the military, and some have speculated that Morsi’s victory would be conditional on his acceptance of recent army power grabs — moves that many say amount to nothing less than a coup d’etat. In the absence of a permanent constitution, the ruling generals have been whittling away at the authority of the the president. Furthermore, two days before the run-off, the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Court dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament elected last year. Party candidates won seats reserved for independents, but instead of simply calling by-elections where appropriate, the court rejected the legitimacy of the entire parliament and gave the military sole power over legislation.

It is strange for me to find myself defending the Muslim Brotherhood. True, as far as religious parties go, they are far from extreme. They disavow violence and are sometimes compared to Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, that paragon of moderation within political Islam. However, virtually any mixture of religion and politics makes me uncomfortable, and it does not help that Morsi himself, in 2007, notoriously drafted a model platform for his party that called for the Egyptian presidency to be restricted to Muslim men. This is not what the young secular revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been fighting for.

All this being said, Morsi and the Brotherhood are without doubt the choice of the people. If the international community is serious about encouraging the spread of freedom and democracy as represented by the Arab Spring, Egypt’s election results must be unconditionally respected. I agree with the position taken by Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, as stated during his appearance last week on the Daily Show (click here to view the clip in Canada or here in the United States):

I don’t agree with the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists — I have major differences with them — but it’s wrong to hide inside your bubble and go running to the military asking them to protect you, because for 60 years, their rule in Egypt actually has created this kind of poverty, extremism, radicalism. The only way is actually to open up for everybody. Because you know what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood? After the parliamentary elections, they won by 75 percent. In two months, in the presidential election, they lost half of their votes just because they were accountable for the first time in 80 years. Just give them power and let them deal with it. And believe me, this is the only way for democracy.

In short, the situation is far from ideal. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is reluctant to loosen its grip on power. Neither Morsi nor his run-off opponent Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, is a liberal democrat’s dream candidate. But Egyptian democracy itself, even in its unsteady opening phase, is very much worthy of celebration. Let us hope that it lasts and grows, that the Egyptian people continue to show the courage and determination that inspired the world sixteen months ago.