What’s happening in Egypt is not a second revolution or a “correction” to the first. It is a coup d’etat that puts the military as firmly in command as it was during the autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak. So much for the Arab Spring in the region’s most populous country.
And, judging by the reaction in Washington and other capitals, so much for Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” Instead, the prevailing sentiment about Egypt seems to be that some people just can’t be allowed to govern themselves.
One does not have to be an admirer of ousted President Mohamed Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood to see clearly what the Egyptian military has done. When vast throngs of self-proclaimed “moderates” took to the streets to protest the way Morsi was governing, the generals could have made clear their support for Egypt’s new democratic order, however flawed. Instead, they protected their own interests.
Morsi had tried to assert civilian control over the military. How silly of him to think the generals would surrender so easily.
To be sure, Morsi staged a power grab of his own last November, when he issued a decree granting himself broad executive powers and eliminating judicial scrutiny of his actions. But swelling protests forced him to back down — an illustration, I would argue, of democracy in action.
Morsi then forged ahead by putting a new constitution, drafted mostly by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, before the electorate. In December, the document was approved by 64 percent of those who voted — a landslide. Turnout was low, and opponents cited “irregularities” at polling places. But I have seen no credible claim that this vote was stolen rather than won.
It is clear that Morsi wanted to make Egypt a more religious, less pluralistic society than it was during the Mubarak years. The rights of Coptic Christians and other minorities were under assault. To Egyptians who are young, secular and middle class — those who poured back into Tahrir Square, cellphones in hand, tweeting their rage to the world — Morsi’s government must have been a nightmare.
The notion that a military coup will make everything better, however, is a fantasy.
For a glimpse at Egypt’s likely future, look at what happened early Monday outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, where Morsi is believed to be held. The new regime is widely expected to charge the former president with as-yet-unspecified crimes and put him on trial. (I wouldn’t bet on an acquittal.) Supporters of Morsi gathered at the compound to protest. Soldiers fired into the crowd, killing at least 51 people and wounding many others. To state the obvious, this is not the way to promote national reconciliation. It’s the way to create martyrs.
Like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized political force in the country. Under Mubarak, the group was banned. Egypt’s new military-backed rulers claim to want to include Islamist parties in the government, but as a practical matter they’re going to have to repress the Brotherhood in some way to keep the group from winning again at the polls.
The Brotherhood might choose to fight with bullets rather than ballots. Or it might just bide its time. Either way, a huge chunk of Egypt’s population will be unreconciled to the new government — and bitterly resent the way it came to power.
Meanwhile, I’m betting that the military will now resume the lucrative role it played in the Egyptian economy under Mubarak, with top generals reaping the lavish financial rewards they consider their due.
But a real question is whether the military’s assumption of power will make the region a bit safer. I doubt it.
Under Morsi, an elected Islamist-led government honored the terms of a peace treaty with Israel. It was an extraordinary example for the rest of the Muslim world. Now, alas, we have an example of what happens when an elected Islamist-led government gets too big for its britches.
Those who cheer the coup apparently believe that the military shares their values — and their vision of a democratic future. But plenty of historical evidence suggests that the military’s values probably derive from self-interest and that its vision of the future closely resembles the autocratic past.
The multitudes of Tahrir Square should try ousting the generals next time. Then we’ll see who’s right.
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