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Government and opposition need to learn how to be democratic

January 27, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Over the past few weeks, I have been dismayed by the degree of intolerance and rigidity of the quarrelling parties in Egypt; both have been on the defensive, unwilling to listen to the other. Hearts have hardened and minds have closed, causing further deterioration in the situation.

I am not a huge fan of so-called “moderate” political Islam, and its offshoot parties and movements, especially those in power. Their speeches are teeming with legal opinions, sermons and religious justification for policies that serve their self-interest more than national interests or those of the Muslim world. It is reminiscent of Europe’s Middle Ages when the church controlled political decisions and speeches were filled with guidance and threats for anyone who disobeyed the will of the rulers, who believed that they and only they had the absolute truth. After adding the adjective “moderate” to “political Islam”, Western governments differentiate between radical Islamic movements (or the jihadists), and Islamic movements willing to accept and engage in politics, primarily through pleasant rhetoric and appealing sound-bites about human rights, democracy, equality and the role of women, the rule of law and good governance.

Despite my reservations about the Morsi government, what the army did in Egypt cannot be construed as anything but a coup, similar to what happened in many African countries in the aftermath of their independence from colonial powers. Ejecting a president who was elected democratically through fair elections (Egypt’s first in decades), the suspension of the constitution (voted for by referendum), the resolution of the Shura (legislative) Council and the closure of radio and TV stations in synch with scores of arrests without warrant or court orders are all signs of this coup. The attempt to draw an analogy between what happened on June 30, 2013 and January 25, 2011 is erroneous. The regime toppled in 2011 did not derive its power from democratic and fair elections and its supporters didn’t have any real presence when compared to the rebels.

In effect, Egypt’s Minister of Defence, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, who trained in British and American military colleges, believes that the armed forces should have more sway over domestic law and order and the army must dominate politics. Latterly, he appointed himself as first deputy prime minister in addition to his post at the Ministry of Defence.

According to Rosa Massagué, writing in Spain’s El Periódico newspaper, the reason for the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the same as the one which excluded the National Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992 and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in Palestine in2006, following their victory in parliamentary elections. The writer argues that the West, first and foremost the US, rejects political Islam as the ruling ideology in the Arab region. However, “moderate” political Islam has not been rejected at all by the West; it has become an acceptable, favourable and even supported model, especially with the advent of the so-called Arab Spring. For instance, when the Freedom and Justice Party came to power in Egypt, coordination with Western powers never stopped, meetings and mutual visits continued, and US support continued. Senator John McCain actually called for an end to US military funding as stipulated by law only after the coup took place.

The position of Secretary of State John Kerry was different, though; he said that Egypt’s army was “restoring democracy”. According to the Washington Post, Kerry told an audience in Pakistan, “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people… the military did not take over, to the best of our judgement – so far.”

According to this hypothesis, what happened in Egypt was not supported or commissioned by the West to overthrow Islamist rule, but rather it was an internal dynamic and a national decision. On closer examination, however, it can be seen that the army’s justification is flawed. The claim that it was siding with the people against the Brotherhood is inaccurate, especially when based simply on the numbers game based on how many people took to the streets and squares in protest.

Using the performance of the Morsi government as an excuse is also a misleading. Evaluating the performance of a president and government is neither mature nor reasonable after less than a year in office given the serious political, economic and social conditions Morsi’s government inherited from the Mubarak regime, to which must be added the opposition-induced instability and demonstrations throughout that year.

In any case, the democratic process put in place a number of institutions and bodies to hold the government to account; there was no need to take to the streets. What the coup leaders did undermines the future of democracy in Egypt. No political party will ever feel safe even if they win future elections, lest their rivals refuse to accept the poll results and simply mobilise their supporters on the streets. The Italian army didn’t topple Silvio Berlusconi for his illegal activities, and the US army didn’t remove Bush for his economic failure and the unemployment crisis, so why should the Egyptian army feel that it can remove Morsi?

Following his ouster, Mohamed Morsi finds himself facing a number of criminal charges. He is accused of escaping from prison during the 2011 revolution; if that was a criminal offence in the circumstances of the time, how could the army-led interim authorities accept his candidacy in the presidential election? He had been arrested by Mubarak’s regime without any charges, a regime which was condemned by almost everybody in Egypt, so why all this fuss now? Morsi was not found guilty of any crime so how can escaping from prison now be considered as a crime in itself?

Al-Sisi says that he decided to remove Morsi after giving him several chances to contain the crisis and stop the deterioration of Egypt’s political and social stability. If the president had agreed to compromise at Al-Sisi’s request, was the general going to overlook the 18 “crimes” of which Morsi now stands accused?

In a sense, it can be inferred that the sole reason behind this current state of affairs is the lack of political experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Unlike some Islamic parties in the region, the movement failed to calm Egyptian fears; instead, its policies and practices deepened and increased uncertainty. While suspicions mounted, the political exclusion of non-Brotherhood parties became evident and the appointment of its own members, supporters and allies in key positions confirmed such doubts. The attitude of the government was interpreted as a rejection of any form of political partnership with other segments of society, especially non-Muslims.

Such an environment was in tandem with poor political performance and a continued economic downturn, leading to a growing state of polarisation and tension. It was then easy for the opposition to incite the people against the government, using a compliant media.

Genuine democracy requires more than ballot boxes; it needs partnership, policies and practice. This is a lesson to be learnt by whichever government comes to power in Egypt. Its opposition, meanwhile, must also learn that institutions exist to hold governments to account and civil unrest is not the way to achieve change in a democracy. Egypt’s government and opposition both need to learn how to be democratic, and the army needs to stand down.

Fadi F. Elhusseini is a Political and Media Counselor at the Embassy of Palestine in Turkey. He is an Associate Research Fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada. He has served as the Director of the Bureau of Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and as a media advisor at the Palestinian Presidency. Twitter @FElhusseini

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.