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Pure Onsense

Egypt's Democratic Coup

Scott Zuke

(8/2013) A month after Egypt's latest revolution, the nation remains gripped with unrest and outbreaks of violence. After protests erupted on June 30 and an ultimatum issued by the military, President Mohamed Morsi was forcefully removed from power on July 3, just a year after winning Egypt's first democratic election in its 5,000 year history. While the military has resumed control and promised swift action to restore civilian rule, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters have demanded his restoration to the presidency and sought to mobilize the Islamist population to bring the country to a halt with sit-in protests and other forms of civil disobedience.

The political climate in Egypt since the resignation of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak has become deeply complicated, but even a brief summary of the past year would be helpful here.

Mohamed Morsi was an unexpected final candidate in Egypt's first democratic election, in which he represented the Muslim Brotherhood against another candidate regarded as being a carryover from Mubarak's authoritarian regime. For the youth protesters who had taken to Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, these represented the worst possible choices of candidates to carry on the democratic spirit of the revolution, and during his year in office, Morsi confirmed their worst expectations.

Egypt under Morsi suffered from economic instability, a lack of security, rising food prices, rising unemployment, and power and fuel shortages, among other problems. Last November, Morsi fatefully crossed another line by issuing a constitutional decree that granted him sweeping powers and put him above the law. By the time he was removed from power, his party in parliament was close to passing a new law that would have severely restricted non-governmental organizations (a tactic also employed last year by Russia's Vladamir Putin to stifle pro-democracy dissent). Law professor and Egypt expert Sahar F. Aziz, speaking recently at the Middle East Institute in D.C., argued that Morsi made the June 30 revolution possible by acting like the Muslim Brotherhood version of Mubarak's authoritarian National Democratic Party.

Since the military-led coup last month, Morsi has been held in detention and charged with various crimes, while his MB supporters have been met with force during street protests, injuring thousands and claiming more than 200 lives.

For the United States, a legal requirement to suspend foreign aid to a country following a coup has put it in the embarassing situation of avoiding using the clearly-applicable term in order to continue its strategically important aid relationship with Egypt. But as several Egypt scholars have pointed out, the "coup" designation is completely irrelevant to the Egyptian people, who are waiting to see how the country can move forward amid division so sharp that the possibility of "civil war" has crept into public discourse.

Somewhere at the center of the turmoil is a fierce battle to define the state of democracy in Egypt, a debate that has also occupied the West. Many American commentators were unsure how to react to Morsi's overthrow. He was undoubtedly a failure in office, but our political culture is one that says the rule of law is unimpeachable; that even a poor leader can only be removed from office at the ballot box; and that the military should never have any role in politics. Egyptians were painted as impatient, immature, and perhaps unworthy of democratic self-rule.

However, this attitude reflects a deficient understanding of both Egypt's political context and of democracy. A common error of Western democracy promotion abroad has been a belief that achieving a free and fair election (even just one), is enough to declare success. That position has been harmful in countries where authoritarianism is the only form of government most citizens have known. After an election, told that they have suddenly achieved democracy, they quickly became disillusioned with the whole idea because of the immense difficulties these countries face when embarking on such a radical transition.

Young democracies often face economic instability, increased corruption, and a host of other problems as part of their growing pains. This is why Joshua Kurlantzick, in Democracy In Retreat, emphasizes the importance of managing citizens' expectations in the early steps of democratization. Democracy takes time to become entrenched, and the path to achieving and solidifying it is rarely a straight one.

In Egypt, Morsi's opponents were able to see early on that their democratic revolution had fallen off the tracks, and that it was too risky to wait for the next election cycle to act. The election itself, while technically free and fair, gave most citizens a choice between two evils, and once Morsi embarked down the authoritarian path again, the opposition parties and the military decided to save the young democracy from itself through less-than-democratic means, resulting in an oxymoronic "democratic coup."

However one feels about Egypt's coup in particular, or the very concept of a democratic coup in general, one unavoidable fact is that, with hundreds of thousands of supporters focused on retaining power in a country where they were outlawed for decades under Mubarak, the nation must find a way to include the MB in the political process and, as Egypt expert Mirette Mabrouk put it in a recent talk, give them a face-saving way to get out of the current standoff. It's not yet clear if the military will attempt to do so, or will instead force them off the streets and back into the shadows.

For the U.S.'s part, some will say the administration has once again taken a back seat rather than showing leadership abroad by keeping quiet about the coup, and others will say we are wasting resources by sending $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt each year. These are important policy questions for the U.S., but perhaps less so now for Egypt, where the people are striving to chart their own path toward a more functional democratic government. For their own sake, we hope that their path leads quickly to peace over violence, and to balanced democratic inclusion rather than marginalization.

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