Egypt’s Elusive Democracy

Pro-democracy demonstrator. Tahrir Square, 2011.

It’s hard not to hope that Egypt gets the democracy it deserves. In the wake of the second ouster of a head of state in two years, such hopes might be elevated. However,  the current state of affairs in the Middle Eastern country is not an optimistic one.

Egypt has now witnessed one of the most unusual of occurrences: a military coup backed by a significant portion of the population. It’s impossible to know how many of the many millions who called for President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster really wanted to see the military put an end to his rule. But popular support for its move against Morsi was obvious.  How do pro-democracy advocates in the West respond to that?

No matter the outcome of the current upheaval, Egypt is in a very bad position. The economy has tanked, a predicament that preceded Morsi’s rule, but one which he proved utterly incapable of dealing with. As President, Morsi also clearly broke the promises implicitly made to the Egyptian people in his campaign by grabbing illegitimate power and increasingly marginalizing every segment of Egyptian society except his own. The reaction was predictable as revolutionary youth, Western-friendly liberals, vestiges of the Mubarak regime and Salafists joined together to oppose him.

This alliance has an obvious expiration date. While its members successfully united in their opposition to the now deposed government, it’s difficult to see them successfully working together to forge a new country. Much depends on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) ability to make good on the political promises, and its willingness to allow the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to participate in shaping the future Egypt. No matter how badly Mohamed Morsi bungled the job, the Brotherhood still represents a significant segment of Egyptian society. Excluding them is not going to lead to stability. Unfortunately, early indications suggest that this is the direction being taken by the armed forces.

These are Egyptian problems. The rest of the world, though it clearly has a stake in Egypt’s future, can do very little good by intervening, unless asked. There is some potential for outside help to be useful, if requested, because what is needed most is for the structures of a functioning republic, based on inclusivity and a representative government, to be formed before a new and permanent government is in place. More than anything else, it is the lack of that structure that created the problems that President Morsi exacerbated, which led to his downfall and the return of military rule.

Early responses from the outside world are not promising. Most of the reactions are entirely predictable, based on each country’s interest in Egypt. Turkey, whose AKP faction is currently facing its own crisis due to concerns over its anti-democratic tendencies, has condemned the coup. While the presumption Morsi exhibited in his declarations placing his authority above the law has not been equaled by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is just the sort of thing that Turkey’s protesters fear.

The United Arab Emirates predictably supported the coup, which ousted a government that had gotten enormous support from neighboring Qatar. Tunisia, which is experiencing growing discontent with its own Islamist government in the wake of the Arab Awakening, condemned the coup. The Assad regime in Syria applauded the move, pointing to the failure of a religiously-based government in favor of its preferred secularism. Iran, unsurprisingly, condemned it.

Rent Law protestors. Tahrir Square, April 2012.
Rent Law protestors. Tahrir Square, April 2012.

But what is most concerning for the West is the American and European response, which on the surface, appears neutral, but which seems tragically misguided in a manner that demonstrates the failings of our own democracies. To its credit, the Obama Administration is putting on a good show, to avoid calling the SCAF intervention a coup, despite the obvious fact that it was. Such a label means, by law, that US aid would have to be cut off, a move which the already-reeling Egyptian economy cannot sustain.

But President Obama also urged a “quick return to a civilian government.” This is, of course, exactly what should be wished for, but pressuring that result is one of the biggest factors that put a president in place who was able to abrogate too much power to himself. There is every reason to mistrust the SCAF’s intentions, of course. One must always be suspicious of any military that ousts a civilian government, and the SCAF is the bastion of those from the Mubarak regime who remain in positions on power in Egypt.

Indeed, we need look no further than the words of the ultra-right wing Congressman Eric Cantor to find reasons for deep suspicion: “The Egyptian military has long been a key partner of the United States and a stabilizing force in the region, and is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today.” Note the term “has long been…” Cantor is shamelessly advocating for a return to the Mubarak era. Indeed, there is a real danger that a similar regime could emerge from all of this, which would certainly please Cantor and similarly radical neoconservatives to no end.

The European Union, for its part, is issuing similar calls, and also refraining from calling the SCAF action a coup. Like the Americans, it all comes back to elections, elections, elections. Like the Americans, the Europeans don’t grasp that there is a lot more to democracy than just voting.

Without a doubt, the Egyptians have demonstrated that democracy goes well beyond any election process. Their poll was flawed in itself, the runoff giving the country as narrow a set of electoral choices as the one Americans are accustomed to. The Egyptian people similarly fail to understand that without a strong republican structure, which protects minorities and promotes universal suffrage and widespread participation in the political process, their next government will go the same way as the last.

As hard as it is to trust the SCAF, the roadmap they have laid out is a pretty good one. It installs a temporary president from the Constitutional Court, and calls for a technocratic government to be installed until early elections are held.  The plan is far from perfect, to be sure. What’s most troubling about it though, is that the Constitutional Court was not only a body that had frequently clashed with President Morsi’s government, but is also a bastion of Mubarak-era officials. And the interim period is clearly a time when a virtual martial law will be established.

SCAF actions in the wake of Morsi’s ousting, which have included arresting not only members of the government, but also Muslim Brotherhood activists, and the closing down of media outlets, do not inspire confidence in its ability to guide the country towards democracy. Nonetheless, if there is one center of power in Egypt that the West has the most influence over, it is the SCAF. We not only have the ability to pressure the military to insure a transition to democracy, but also to rein in its own excesses, and to ensure that the constitutional process is inclusive of all parties.

The Egyptian people are struggling towards a democratic republic. The experience of both of their revolutions demonstrates that this is what it desires. As constitutional freedoms continue to get rolled back, and the voice of the people becomes ever more insignificant against corporate and oligarchical power in the West, we’d do well to learn some lessons from them. We certainly do not have anything to teach the Egyptians about democracy. But we can do our own bit to help them avoid the mistakes of the past, theirs as well as ours.


Photographs courtesy of  Laura Schlichting  and  Zeinab Mohamed. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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