Egyptians may claim there was something unique about the people-power-backed military coup that unfolded Wednesday in Cairo. But the world has witnessed many such putsches in the past half-century. From Buenos Aires to Bangkok, crowds have begged generals to oust democratically elected governments and cheered when they responded. Without exception, the results have been dismal: violence, if not civil wars; massive human rights violations; decades-long political conflicts.
Oh, and by the way, those removed from power sooner or later have returned.
The Islamic character of Egypt’s ousted government should not obscure the way the country resembles Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand and other developing nations in which free elections after decades of autocracy have brought a new elite to power. The new rulers typically represent previously disenfranchised poor and rural populations, who often don’t share the cultural values of the capital’s middle and upper classes.
Once in office, new governments made up almost entirely of novice officials frequently overreach. They battle with the old establishment in the bureaucracy, judiciary and media. They write new constitutions in an attempt to lock in their electoral advantage. They tread on civil liberties. And, more often than not, they badly mismanage the economy by adopting populist measures that cater to their political bases.
In those respects, the government of Mohamed Morsi differed little from those of Juan Perón in Argentina, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. However, its excesses fell well short of those of Chávez, or Chile’s Salvador Allende; unlike Shinawatra or Perón, Morsi did not set up militias or establish death squads. Although his government failed to compromise with opponents and sought to concentrate its power, it made only modest attempts to impose its Islamic ideology on the country and did not seek to alter Egypt’s capitalist economy, which was slowly sinking but not imploding. It preserved crucial foreign relationships with the United States and Israel.
Cairo’s secular middle class consequently had far less cause to take to the streets last weekend than did the pot-bangers in Allende’s Chile, the general strikers of Caracas or the yellow shirts of Bangkok. They can, however, expect much the same results — which will be anything but the liberal democracy they say they support.
Applauders of military coups have in common two illusions: that the generals share their agenda and that their hated opponents, despite their electoral victories, can be politically nullified. Invariably, neither turns out to be true. Armed forces aren’t good at convening roundtables or implementing liberal platforms; they are good at using force. Even if they don’t torture and kill, they sweep up nonviolent political leaders, shut down media they regard as troublesome and try to impose political rules protecting their own political and economic interests.
That is what the Egyptian army did after removing Hosni Mubarak in 2011. On Wednesday it began shutting down television stations and rounding up Muslim Brotherhood leaders while Egypt’s self-described liberal democrats were still celebrating their supposed popular revolution.
The worst-case scenario for Egypt is that the Islamists, like those of Algeria after its 1992 coup, go underground and to war. Less likely but still possible, the Muslim Brotherhood will amass enough support to march right back into power, as did Venezuela’s Chávez in 2002.
More likely, Egypt’s Islamists — including salafists who are far more radical than the ousted government — will bide their time, reorganize, reap the political benefits of the coming chaos and eventually win new elections, as Thaksin’s redshirts, the Islamists of Turkey, Argentina’s Peronists and Chile’s socialists did. If he leaves the country, Morsi might get a pep talk from Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who just returned to office 14 years after the coup against him; the general who led it is under arrest.
Egypt’s secular elite insists that something had to be done to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from monopolizing power and gutting democracy from the inside. But there were ways to stop the Morsi government’s excesses well short of a coup — and of ensuring that Islamists did not return in the next election.
For that, Egypt’s opposition need only have looked to Turkey, where massive crowds are forcing the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back away from its authoritarian excesses while preserving the constitutional order. Or Venezuela, where the democratic opposition, learning from its mistakes, set about to organize and fight elections despite uneven odds. They barely lost the last presidential contest and now stand ready as the Chavista government fails, splits and crumbles on its own.
That could have happened in Egypt. Instead, the ultimate losers in this week’s coup will be those who cheered it on.
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