Events in Egypt this week have been nothing if not fast-moving. On Wednesday, Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president in six decades, was overthrown. It has been seen by some as a continuation of the revolution which toppled long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and by some as a military coup, a power-grab by the old regime.
Across the board, most commentators feel discomfort with the means by which Morsi was toppled. It is broadly acknowledged that he was not a great leader. Thus far, he had done little to help the poor, sooth social unrest, or improve law and order, and he also ignored the voices of Egypt’s secularists and liberals to push through his party’s agenda. On the other hand, while the latest uprising began as a popular outpouring of discontent, the eagerness with which those liberal protesters welcomed the army’s intervention has caused concern. The attitude has apparently been that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, but the ousting of a democratically elected president – no matter how ineffective that president – by the army – no matter how much support the army had in doing it – sets a dangerous precedent.
This is certainly a view taken by the African Union. The group of 54 states met today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to decide its stance on Egypt. Coups, military or otherwise, have blighted African politics for decades, and so the Union takes a tough stance. Its usual response to the interruption of constitutional rule by a member state is to suspend that state. In this politically unstable context, there is no concept of a good or bad coup.
Today, Egypt became the latest state it suspended. On its Twitter site, the African Union said that this decision was because of “the overthrow of democratically elected Egyptian President”. This action by the African Union is certainly consistent. In March, the Central African Republic was suspended after rebels overthrew the government, while Madagascar and Mali have both faced similar treatment in recent years (Mali has since been reinstated).
Western powers have been less consistent in their responses to the quick change of events in Cairo. Most have expressed concern about the principle of a military takeover. Yet this has been balanced by a poorly concealed discomfort with Morsi’s focus on political Islam – the undercurrent seems to be that some coups are less bad than others. Speaking to the Today programme the day after the takeover, William Hague said: “We will always be clear that we don’t support military intervention, but we will work with people in authority in Egypt. That is the practical reality of foreign policy.”
The European Union has been even more evasive. At a press conference, a spokesman avoided questions from journalists about whether events in Egypt can be described as a “coup d’etat.” He said only: “We are, of course, not in favour of military interventions.” Behind the scenes reports suggest that diplomats are uncertain how best to respond, because they do not favour military intervention, but do not want to appear to be supporting Morsi and his brand of political Islam. The US has also stopped short of describing events as a coup.
The situation in Egypt is by no means cut and dry. In power, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood were reluctant to share power or listen to dissenting voices, and promoted cronies. None of this particularly furthers democratic aims. Yet democracy takes time to evolve: a country cannot be expected to go from decades of military dictatorship to a fully functioning democracy within months. Calling in the military whenever a president does something unpopular does not set a good precedent. Western leaders clearly know this; they would do well to put aside their concerns about political Islam and show some consistency. The only way to promote democracy internationally while retaining a shred of credibility is to accept that sometimes democracy produces results you don’t like.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.