Paradox of Egyptian democracy

This time the Islamist revolution was peaceful and power was captured through the ballot box, but the anti-Islamists overturned the will of the people with the backing of the military.

The echoes of the violent counter-revolution will reverberate through much of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Egypt is a pivotal state and what happens inside its borders matters well outside it. It is not the Islamists who have warned that Islam is not compatible with democracy. Rather, their opponents have demonstrated that democracy cannot be reconciled with political Islam even when it is peaceful.

In December 1991, Islamists won the first round of elections in Algeria and were poised to win the second round in early 1992, but were prevented from taking office and exercising power by the military which stepped in. Just like in Egypt today, the military hand-picked a ruler. We can only hope that what followed is not replayed in Egypt. With the generals banning Islamist parties, an underground militant insurgency took hold. For the rest of the 1990s Algeria was wracked by a brutal civil war which claimed around 200,000 lives and whose appalling legacy still lives on in the memory of the people. More than 50 protesting people being shot dead by the army in Cairo is not an auspicious start to the new political dispensation.

No one disputes that Egypt’s elections last year were clean and fair to international standards, and that President Mohamed Morsi won fair and square. The presidential elections were followed by parliamentary elections and then a referendum on the constitution: the Islamists won all three. Whatever else we might think of Iran, it is closer to an electoral democracy than Saudi Arabia. The West demonizes Iran as a militant theocracy and lauds Saudi Arabia for its moderation despite its hefty financial underwriting of militants for decades.

The Egyptian coup bore most of the signature hallmarks of military coups: tanks in the streets, helicopters above Tahrir Square, commandeering the radio and TV broadcast stations, shutting down media outlets of the ousted regime, announcing the coup on national TV by men in uniform against the backdrop of the country’s flags, and, most crucially, an explanation that the military had moved to defend the nation from its enemies. Interesting how they never intervene because they are seduced by power themselves.

The confusion over whether or not Mohamed El Baradei had been offered and accepted the post of interim prime minister illustrates a fairly common pathology of military coups. It is easier to mount the tiger of a coup than to get off it at a time and destination of one’s choosing.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood leaders be imprisoned or worse? Will they be prevented from contesting again? If not, what if they should win again?

To be sure, Morsi and his camp made serious mistakes. They were not inclusive. They seemed intent on governing only for themselves, giving no indication that the nearly half of the country that did not vote for them was still a legitimate stakeholder in the post-Mubarak regime. Egypt’s economy was in free fall. The result of the policy missteps and inept governance was that the Brotherhood was slowly but surely being discredited in the Muslim world.

Now they have been martyred, and the cause of democracy and the rule of law in the Arab world’s most influential country has suffered a major setback. Islamists had participated in the democratic process and won power. The secularists seem to be dominant among the urban middle class — the cohort that in the Western democracies is often dismissed derisively as the inner city cultural elite that looks down on the “real” Americans or Australians.

The proper — indeed the only — method of removing a democratically elected president is at the ballot box or through impeachment for criminal malfeasance (which has not been alleged). The coup cannot be interpreted as anything but undermining the prospects of consolidating democracy in Egypt. A useful contrast is to think of the untidy, messy and far from linear progress that has been made in the world’s largest Islamic country, Indonesia.

For all the unevenness of the progress, civilian democratic governance has indeed been steadily consolidated in Indonesia since the time of the Suharto regime. In Egypt instead, only one year has been marked by an elected president. The transition to democracy has been interrupted, if not aborted, by the generals, not safeguarded.

Washington is required — not permitted — by law to cut off all U.S. aid in response to a coup. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act is as clear as it is unequivocal: Aid must be terminated to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree,” or by a coup “in which the military plays a decisive role.”

To avoid this mandatory straitjacket, the Obama administration has balked at calling Morsi’s ouster a coup. The billion dollar plus aid to Egypt is important to the recipient to keep the country’s economy afloat and to the donor for maintaining close links with its military. Washington has a history of ignoring inconvenient national and international laws. For years they kept providing aid to Pakistan by turning a blind eye to its nuclear shenanigans. More recently they have broken through the NPT barriers to help India with its civil nuclear program while it is permitted to keep its nuclear bombs.

Muslims and Arabs might well ask: Do the United States and the West have problems with democracy unless “their” side wins? And if the electoral route to political power is ruled out for Islamists and their victorious candidates are prevented from taking office, or removed from it, at the point of guns, one cannot confidently rule out that they will go underground and intensify efforts to capture power by force.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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