Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Military coup in Egypt

This morning it was still unclear where the political crisis in Egypt was going. Well, now we know—at least, for the moment. The Egyptian military has intervened directly, removed the president, installed a transition government, and initiated a process to rewrite the post-Mubarak constitution.

The long-term results of this coup remain to be seen, and available alternatives didn't look very promising or attractive either, so it makes sense to withhold final judgment for the moment. I can understand why a significant portion of Egyptian society is greeting this coup with enthusiasm and relief (while another portion is undoubtedly reacting with shock and dismay). But it makes sense to feel ambivalent.

During the period that followed the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, my (non-expert) impression for a while was that the outcome would turn out to be a deal between the two most effective authoritarian forces in the country, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. If that arrangement was ever really in the cards, it has clearly broken down—and that may turn out to be a good thing.

But the question now is what happens instead. For anyone hoping that Egyptians will be able to move toward constructing and consolidating a (more or less) democratic regime, there are good reasons to feel misgivings about trying to get there this way. This morning, when it was still unclear what the military was planning to do, Michael Koplow (at Ottomans and Zionists), voiced some of those misgivings in advance.  Whether or not one fully agrees with him on every point, I do think he makes an excellent overall case for ambivalence.
[....]  In Egypt, which is not yet a democracy no matter how many people would like to believe otherwise, Morsi became president following democratic elections, and has ever since pursued a narrow, sectarian policy in which he has made clear that he believes he is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than all Egyptians. He too has fallen back on the fact that there were elections to justify all sorts of policies that rankle most Egyptians, and the fact that Egypt this week saw what were likely the largest demonstrations in human history makes no difference to him. He cloaked himself in the mantle of elections in order to shunt aside Egypt’s courts and force through a new constitution six months ago, and during the crisis of the last two days, he has refused to acknowledge having made mistakes or grant that changes need to be made because he his policies have the ultimate legitimacy emanating from the fact that he was elected. Morsi is using elections not only to justify his position, but to justify any actions that he takes.

To be clear, if the military moves in and deposes Morsi by force, it will be a disaster. As I pointed out during the constitutional crisis in December, such a move will doom any real hope for democracy in Egypt for decades:
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous.  [JW: And now here is a key point.]  Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt.
Free and fair elections need to be respected, and no matter how poor of a president Morsi has been and no matter how wrongheaded and disastrous his government’s policies, the millions of people in the streets should be heeded by the government in terms of changing course but not in allowing mob rule. Egyptians have legitimate grievances, but by the same token a military coup to get rid of Morsi is not the answer. Nevertheless, Erdoğan, Morsi, and heads of state everywhere need to unlearn the lesson that they have taken away, which is that elections are all that matter and that what happens between elections does not.  [....]
Furthermore—and Koplow might have brought this out more clearly—periods when a new regime is being constructed bring special dangers and challenges.  There were good reasons to fear that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were using their power to entrench themselves in ways that would make it difficult to remove them in later elections.  Nevertheless, Koplow is right to stress that when political forces in a society come to expect military intervention as a way of resolving political crises, the results can be profoundly corrupting.

But there's always the question of alternatives. To argue that a military coup to remove Morsi would "doom any real hope for democracy in Egypt for decades" tacitly assumes that there was a realistic hope for movement toward democracy in the absence of this military coup.  That's hard to assess, especially in retrospect.  Resolving this crisis with some kind of power-sharing arrangement, along the lines speculated about by Samuel Tadros (which I quoted earlier today), might have been better if an agreement along those lines was realistically possible:
Maybe there is some hope after all in Egypt. An actual balance of power may be in the making, not in constitutional articles but on the ground. All parties need to recognize that the country is larger than them and a bit of humility on their parts is badly needed.
But was this option actually available?  Hard to say (and Tadros himself noted some reasons for being skeptical).  At all events, it didn't happen.  Now we see what happens next.

—Jeff Weintraub

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