Saturday, July 06, 2013

On the Egyptian putsch

Following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi on Thursday there have been quite a few people who, without necessarily supporting the putsch, have helpfully pointed out that it takes more than 'mere elections' to make a democracy.  A list of features required to stop an elected politician dismantling democracy from within is often added to this uncontroversial observation, which include institutions that protect minority rights, an independent judiciary, a free media and so on.

There's nothing to disagree with there but in all the lists I've seen so far, there's a rather glaring omission: one characteristic of a country's government that hitherto has generally been considered essential for the proper functioning of anything that deserves the name 'democracy' is civilian control of the military.  That Egypt does not have this anymore is a point so obvious that one would not have thought it needed making, but apparently it does.  The constitution has been suspended, the elected president has been overthrown and put under arrest, as have the leadership of the party he represents.  Now some of those who have taken to the streets to protest about this have been shot dead.  It is naive in the extreme to claim that this does not constitute a coup simply because it was preceded by really big demonstrations.

The ambivalence that some are clearly feeling with regards to Morsi's ouster obviously has to do with hostility to the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is a feeling I share but if one rejects the claims of 'democratic uniqueness' being made for this coup d'etat, there does not seem to be any reason to think this one will not end up like all the rest.

The observation that military governments have a tendency to degenerate into oppression and violence is a point that has been well-made in various places but another which could do with more emphasis is that, even if one can overlook the illegal and violent way they come to power, military regimes rarely achieve what they set out to do.  Try telling them in Pakistan that military government brings about stability - and try telling people just about anywhere that it is likely to deal with their Islamist problem.  In the case of Egypt it is unlikely to do so, not least because of the nature of Morsi's departure.  Elections alone don't make a democracy - but on the other hand, it doesn't do to understate their importance.  After all, the final test of whether elected politicians have succeeded in dismantling democracy from within is if it becomes clear that future competitive elections are impossible.  Egypt may have ended up like this but I don't think it is reasonable to suggest that it was far enough down that road to justify this 'intervention'.

As it is, Muslim Brotherhood supporters have seen their elected president ejected at gunpoint after only a year in office and in the future it is going to be rather more difficult to persuade them that democratic participation rather than violence is the best way to pursue their interests.  I wish opponents of political Islamism who have made vaguely supportive noises about this coup would realise something very important has been lost, which was the prospect of a religious government collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence and being rejected at the ballot box by the people they claimed to represent.  Instead, what has happened seems likely only to preserve and strengthen the narrative that it is external enemies and not their own internal problems that are behind the failure of political Islamism.



The Plump said...

All valid points.

But there is one thing missing. There was a mass uprising against the MB. This was bigger than the uprising against Mubarak and it was not going away. The ultimate arbiter in all such cases is the army. And it faces a choice. Which group of civilians does it serve? It either had to back the rising or suppress it. It backed the overwhelming majority of the people. The question is whether the army sees its role as facilitating the shift of power from one group of civilians to another, supporting a revolution, or seeing its role as acting as the necessary saviour of the country, being above the conflicts and taking power for itself. There are historical parallels for both.

One other point. Islamism is not democratic. Democracy is a tactic for power, not a value. Notice how 'democratically elected' Hamas have not troubled themselves with any electoral test since.

Given the uprising, the MB faced a choice; rely on the legitimacy of their initial, decidedly lucky, election or call fresh elections to end the protests. If they had done the latter they would have been slaughtered. They gambled on the army and lost the bet. The army and police were not going to do a Turkey. Their gamble now is that the army will take power for itself and then they can regain legitimacy as the opponents of a military regime. We will have to see.

Shuggy said...

Hmm, as you said in your own piece, the record of coups is not particularly encouraging. What concerns me is the ease with which people have convinced themselves that this one must be different. The other thing is the number of justifications of this that seem to depend on what the Morsi regime might have become. I don't really think that's good enough. His clumsy power-grab re: the judiciary was rebuffed. Is there any reason to think he was in a position to do anything of Enabling Act proportions? I don't think so. Still, as you say - we'll see. I share the ambivalence described in the post but I'm much more concerned about the possible consequences than the optimists.

Anonymous said...

The timing of the putsch can be explained by the fact that the Egyptian government’s foreign currency reserves are nearly exhausted. They aren’t being replenished because the political instability has scared the tourists away. They are being rapidly depleted because the population relies heavily on imported wheat for basic subsistence. Once the cash runs out so does the bread. At that point there will be food riots and a serious risk of widespread starvation. The country will suddenly lurch into anarchy or totalitarianism. If the generals had waited until then to intervene they might have found that the situation was already beyond their control. But this is also why the coup might not be such a bad thing, at least in the short term (with heavy emphasis on “might”). The new military government should be able to get financial aid from wealthy Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They were much less likely to offer anything to the Morsi government because these feudal regimes see the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous revolutionaries. A military coup is never likely to turn out well, but in this case it might avert something much worse.

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