On The Coup In Egypt And The Future Of Democracy

The events of the last week in Egypt raise a whole host of questions.

Mideast Egypt

In the days since the protests that had started in Egypt last Sunday, soon accompanied by a warning from the military that the Administration of now-deposed President Mohammed Morsi had 48 hours within which to address the concerns of the massive crowds that continued to flood onto the streets of  major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, there’s been much discussion about what the coup means for the future of Egypt and the future of representative democracy in the Arab world. It’s seemingly an important question given that Egypt is both the largest country in the Arab world by population, often  seen as the leading nation in the Arab world, and among the first to attempt the transition from authoritarian rule to some kind of  democratic rule, something that isn’t exactly common in that part of the world.

It took more than a year for the various parties and interest groups left in Mubarak’s wake to  put together a Constitution to govern the new nation, and longer than that for the beginnings of a civilian political system to come together. The process wasn’t exactly smooth either. Not too long after Egypt held Parliamentary elections that went heavily in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s highest court, made up almost entirely of jurists who had been put in place in the Mubarak Era, purported to invalidate the elections and dissolve Parliament. Soon after that, Mohammed Morsi was elected President in an election that was heavily dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood supporters largely because they were the only real organized political group in the nation in the wake of the end of Mubarak’s 30 year  rule. Morsi entered office just a year and a few days before he was deposed, and immediately set about defying the Constitutional Court by calling the supposedly dissolved Parliament back into session.  Soon after, though, there were signs that Morsi’s rule was not going to live up to the hopes of the protesters who had crowded Tahrir Square. The Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda seemed to be the one he was promoting while in office, and by November he had granted himself many of the same dictatorial powers that Mubarak had used prior to being deposed. Indeed, over the past year there were frequent reports of  protests, on a far smaller scale than those of the past week,  against Morsi’s rule.

Clearly, there were resentments building up against the Morsi regime over the past year. Not being an expert in Egyptian politics I am not going to fathom to comment on all of the roots of what we saw unfold this week. However, it does appear that a combination of what many Egyptians perceived to be Morsi’s growing authoritarianism, the fact that the promises of the 2011 protests remain unfulfilled, and an economy that has been incredibly weak for a period that predates the fall of Hosni Mubarak  led to a situation where the frustrations this all created brought millions of people to the streets. Acting most likely for own reasons and in its own interests, the military stepped in and pushed Morsi aside.

Now we’re left with the question of what this all means, and whether it’s really healthy in the political sense for something like this too happen so early in the process of creating a civilian political culture. Two Op-Ed pieces that ran on July 4th in The New York Times lay out the opposite sides of the case fairly well.

On one side, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution sees the coup as a major setback for representative democracy and the efforts to encourage Islamists to eschew violence to achieve their goals:

The Brotherhood’s fall will have profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways. One of the most important political developments of recent years was the decision of Islamist parties to make peace with democracy and commit to playing by the rules of the political game. Leaders counseled patience to their followers. Their time would come, they were told.

Now supporters of the Brotherhood will ask, with good reason, whether democracy still has anything to offer them. Mr. Morsi’s removal will breathe new life into the ideological claims of radicals. Al Qaeda and its followers have long argued that change can’t come through the democracy of “unbelievers”; violence is the only path. As the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri once said, “What is truly regrettable is the rallying of thousands of duped Muslim youth in voter queues before ballot boxes instead of lining them up to fight in the cause of Allah.”

Al Qaeda’s intellectual forebears emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, and were shaped by events that bear an eerie similarity to those of this week. In 1954, a popularly backed Egyptian Army moved against the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands and dismantling the organization. Prison had a radicalizing effect on Sayyid Qutb, a leading Brotherhood ideologue, who experienced torture at the hands of his captors before being executed in 1966. Many of Mr. Qutb’s followers later left the Brotherhood’s embrace and went their own way, setting up militant organizations that would begin perpetrating acts of terrorism.

In 1954, no one could have guessed that the brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood would set in motion a chain of events that would have terrible consequences for the region and America.

The events of this week could have similarly profound implications. In the hours after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, the new military leadership suspended the Constitution, shut down at least three Islamist television stations, and, more ominously, issued arrest warrants for at least 300 Brotherhood members. Prominent liberal voices are calling for “dissolving” the Brotherhood and holding what would amount to dubious show trials.

America finds itself in a tight spot. After the coup, President Obama expressed “deep concern,” steering clear of any explicit condemnation. More troubling, he called for the restoration of “a” — not “the” — democratically elected government, an important distinction that won’t be lost on the Brotherhood.

When I spoke to one of Mr. Morsi’s top advisers on the night of June 30, he was already pre-emptively blaming the United States. If a coup takes place, he told me, it means that America either supports it or is willing to look the other way.

This, too, bears the echoes of a not-so-distant past. In 1992, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of a historic victory in free elections. But the Algerian Army intervened, annulling the results and rounding up thousands of Islamists, many of whom ended up in desert prison camps. Days before the crackdown began, one of the Salvation Front’s leaders, Abdelkader Hachani, warned a crowd of supporters what might be in store. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he told them.

David Brooks, on the other hand, argues that Morsi’s year in power and the coup demonstrate that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are incapable of governing in a modern representative democracy, thus making the coup necessary:

World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,” declared one speaker at a pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Tuesday.

As Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, put it in an essay recently, for this sort of person “there is no need for causality, since that would imply a diminution of God’s power.” This sort of person “does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it.”

Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.

Nathan Brown made that point about the Muslim Brotherhood recently in The New Republic: “The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party.”

Once elected, the Brotherhood subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process, concentrated power and made democratic deliberations impossible.

It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam. We’ve seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus.

The substance people are right. Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.

This week’s military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.

Brooks may well be right on some level. Expecting the Muslim Brotherhood, which indeed was the roots of the movement that also led eventually to the birth of al Qaeda and which was involved in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat as well as other incidents of political violence in Egypt over the years, to become a political party capable of governing in a modern pluarlistic democratic state  may have been naive from the beginning. As was noted from the start, though, the reality when Mubarak fell was that they were the most well-organized political force in the country, far dwarfing the capabilities of the nascent secular parties in both the Parliamentary and Presidential elections. Once they got into power, though, they could not resist the urge to use the levers of power to enact their agenda, and seemingly looked the other way as other radical groups expanded their muscle in areas like the Sinai Peninsula and engage in campaigns targeting the nation’s Coptic Christian minority.

I have to wonder,though, if Brooks is right in his assessment about the ability of “Islamists” to govern effectively in a democracy.  Morsi certainly wasn’t doing a good job by all accounts, and the rules of Iran and the Gaza Strip certainly haven’t proven themselves to be acting in the best interests of their people. Turkey, though, seems to be a slightly different story notwithstanding recent protests, in no small part because the economy in Turkey is in far better shape than the other nations listed. One nation that Brooks fails to take note  of, though, is one that had a revolt even before Egypt did, Tunisia:

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, and within a few weeks it had spread to neighboring Egypt. Today, 2 1/2 years later, Tunisia is close to ratifying a democratic constitution with well over two-thirds’ support in the constituent assembly. Egypt, as the world knows, is in the throes of a military coup that removed the democratically elected president. The obvious — and crucial — question is: What’s the difference? Why has democratic constitutionalism worked relatively well in one North African Arab country while it has crashed and burned in another? And what will the answer tell us about the future of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, from Libyato Syria and beyond?

You might think the answer has something to do with Islam. But remarkably enough, it doesn’t. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the first democratic elections produced significant pluralities favoring Islamic democratic parties. Ennahda, the Islamist movement whose political party won in Tunisia, is ideologically similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a kind of associate of the Brotherhood’s loosely affiliated internationale. Both parties believe in combining Islamic values with democratic practice. Both accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims, even if in practice they are both socially conservative and seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.

The contrasting personalities and styles of their leaders, however, have pushed Ennahda and the Brotherhood to behave differently when negotiating religion with secularists in their respective countries.Rachid Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of the Tunisian Islamists, has emerged as the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela. During his decades in exile, Ghannouchi wrote extensively about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and developed a relatively liberal vision of how Islam and the state should interact.

Skeptics then claimed that Ghannouchi’s views were a cover for a more radical agenda; and some Tunisian secularists still think so. But the evidence thus far is sharply to the contrary. When Islamists called for inserting a reference to Shariah into the Tunisian constitution — usually the sine qua non for any Islamic political party — Ghannouchi took seriously the opposition from secularists. In a dramatic showdown with members of his own party’s leadership, he reportedly threatened to resign unless they dropped the measure. …

By contrast, when Mohamed Mursi was president, he proved disastrously unwilling to negotiate during Egypt‘s truncated constitutional drafting process. The Brotherhood could have shown its good faith by moderating the various Islamic provisions it sought to incorporate. It wouldn’t even have had to omit Shariah, a reference to which was already included in Egypt’s pre-revolutionary constitution. Instead, the Brotherhood went further, giving constitutional authority to the clerics of al-Azhar. Compromise alone wouldn’t have forestalled the protests that led to Mursi’s overthrow. But it would have signaled a willingness to govern on behalf of the whole populace, not just those who voted for the Brotherhood.

The willingness to share governing responsibility is probably the single-most-salient factor separating Tunisia’s relative success from Egypt’s disaster. Ennahda has governed as part of a coalition with secularist parties, whose members filled the positions of president and speaker of the Assembly alongside Ennahda’s prime minister.

This so-called troika of parties has often been dysfunctional and has failed to take decisive action on the economy, which is the most important national issue and the impetus to the Arab Spring in the first place. But the symbolic power of the coalition has helped ensure that frustration about the slow pace of economic change hasn’t focused solely on Ennahda, but on the government more generally. In contrast, Mursi failed to appoint a coalition Cabinet with any meaningful breadth. Anger at shortages and a failing economy then fell squarely on him and his party.

So, the failures in Egypt  may have more to do with the contrasting governing styles between Islamists in Tunisia and Islamists in Egypt than anything endemic to “political” Islam itself. Therefore, Brooks’ entire conclusion falls into doubt. More importantly, though, the implications of his conclusion that Islamists should be kept out of the democratic process altogether would seem to be brought down by the Tunisia example. The solution, Tunisia suggests, isn’t to shut Islamists out of politics but to find a way to encourage the kind of coalition building that has gone on in Tunisia. Part of that, of course, requires the creation of strong secular parties that can compete on a national level. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Brooks position, though, is what it implies for the future. If Islamists are shut out of political alternatives then it seems in inevitable that they are going to shift their attention to other, less peaceful, means to achieve their goals.

There’s one final issue that this weeks events raise, and that it has implications for the future of liberal democracy in any nation that doesn’t have a long tradition of democratic institutions. Less than a year after they had shaken off six decades of rule that was essential military authoritarian rule hidden behind a civilian face, the Egyptian people took to the streets this week to essentially ask the military to overthrow their democratically elected leadership. Now, it may well be that their complaints about Morsi’s leadership were well-founded. However, military coups aren’t supposed to be the manner in which conflicts are solved in democratic societies. What happens a year or two from now if whomever happens to be in the newly elected leadership in Cairo proves to be ineffective at solving their nations problems? Will the military step in once again to put its thumb on the scale? As I noted in a post on the 4th of July, that’s not how transitions of power are supposed to happen in democratic societies. If that’s the path that Egypt is headed for, then it will have a democracy in name only and will likely be living under the iron hand of the military for some time. The fact that the iron hand may be clothed in a velvet glove will be entirely beside the point.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Politics 101, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Jane2 says:

    I’d hardly call David Brooks an expert on Egyptian politics, either.

  2. Stonetools says:

    Well written post. I think at this point we don’t know how things will turn out. A miltary coup isn’t a good thing, but as I noted on another thread, they occasionally do lead to democracy. Steady pressure by the USA urging the Egyptian miltary to follow through on its promises is the best option here.
    David Brooks is an idiot on foreign policy , as he is on many things.

  3. anjin-san says:

    We need to keep in mind that advanced western democracies traveled a long, steep road to get to where they are today.

  4. Jenos Idanian says:

    It has been demonstrated that certain political movements are fundamentally incompatible with elective democracy, and as a result have been banned from participating in such exercises, as they tend to end up in the “one man, one vote, one time” type of tyranny. Nazism and Communism are two examples that come readily to mind.

    In light of Egypt, it might be time to add “Islamism” to that list.

  5. Jenos Idanian says:
  6. Tyrell says:

    An important related issue is the aid that the US (taxpayers money) is sending over there. Who gets it? Is it helping anyone? Are any requirements attached?
    There should be stipulations: all religious groups will be respected, mistreatment of any women will not be allowed, tourists’ safety will be guaranteed.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    Cannot disagree with Mr Mataconis’ divided feelings. Would strongly urge anyone interested in intricacies of the region to read Informed Comment, the daily thoughts of Dr Juan Cole.

  8. glasnost says:

    This is a fairly good post from Doug. Have to give credit where due.