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Nobody wins in Egypt

January 27, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Since the military intervention in Egypt, many observers of Middle Eastern politics have tried to evaluate the geopolitical consequences of the regime change in Egypt.

The majority of these scholars assert that Turkey and Qatar would lose from the new political developments in the region, since they were the two countries that endorsed the revolutions in the Arab world. Turkey in particular, with its extremely overt criticisms of the military intervention, is being identified as a country that will certainly lose under the current circumstances. Although these experts are not equally clear about who benefits from this new political situation, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel, or the West are most often pronounced as the winners. Saudi Arabia’s investment in the new regime is expected to give it a strategic edge, whereas Western governments are expecting the new regime to be a more pro-Western government.

It is not only short sighted to claim that a military coup in one country would bring a strategic advantage to other countries in the region, but also equally incomprehensible to argue that the coup would result in certain positive outcomes for the region as a whole. If the new regime in Egypt survives in the coming days, nobody will win a strategic advantage; rather, all actors in the Middle East will lose dearly, most significantly the Egyptian people themselves.

Egypt will not win…

The reverse wave of democratization during a democratic experiment is not unique to the Egyptian revolution. However, most of the instances of counterrevolutions during democratic transformations bring more harm than good to the overall situation of the county. They serve to delay solutions to structural and economic problems, and more dangerously, create a major rift among different segments of the population. This scenario has been apparent in Egypt since the beginning of June and has reached its nadir when General Sisi called upon his supporters to organize demonstrations. Counter-revolutions that are aided by the army are even more problematic. Allowing the military to intervene and gain control of the political system not only interrupts the democratic transition, but also creates a precedent for the future military involvement in politics. This precedent creates a situation in which the military no longer waits for a call from the people, but acts in its self-interest and creates military tutelage to control the country and its political systems. Moreover, although the military looks like a unified body in most countries, regular involvement in the political process creates political polarization within the military, destroying its professionalism and making these groups vulnerable to external provocations. In its extreme forms, this politicization of the army creates another recipe for disaster by militarizing internal strife between different factions of the government.

The side effects of the military coup are not limited to the problems of instability. In countries that experience coups and military interventions, the transition period between the military coup and elections usually witnesses a crackdown on former government officials in addition to human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, antidemocratic practices, high levels of corruption, and strict limitations on basic freedoms and liberties. The arrest of high-level Muslim Brotherhood officials and the closing of some of the TV channels in Egypt have been early indications of these possible human rights abuses. The Egyptian military’s attack on pro-Morsi demonstrators on July 8 and subsequently also demonstrated the possible consequences of a military coup on the political process in the country. Without democratic accountability it is impossible to hold any government official responsible for the wrongdoings. Moreover, the nationalism that Sisi’s regime is propagating in Egypt is increasingly leading to a xenophobic political atmosphere in the country. Pro-coup demonstrators are chanting slogans against other countries and the new regime is blaming Syrian refugees for joining pro-Morsi demonstrators. This not only endangers Egypt’s relation with other countries, but also threatens the structure of Egyptian society.

The Region will not win…

The coup in Egypt will not only hamper the democratization of Egypt, but will also have serious consequences for the region, even for those countries that celebrated the coup in Egypt. First, the coup was a serious blow to a new wave of people’s movement that could change the foundations of politics in the Middle East. The Tahrir Square protests in 2011 challenged not only the orientalist conceptualization of the Middle East as a region, but also the system that was formed with the Sykes Picot agreement. A new Middle East was the motto for many who have observed the developments in the region. The coup and its aftermath bring the issue back to square one. The military of Egypt and those who have become the beneficiary of its tutelage regime, tip the new image upside down. For many orientalists who were puzzled by the developments of the last three years, Egypt’s coup was a source of relief, Now for them Egypt represents another Middle Eastern nation that “failed to democratize.”

Secondly, the hope that spread to the youth of the Middle East during the Arab Spring broke down once again with the military coup in Egypt. After several generations under dictatorship and military tutelage, the youth in Middle East had the opportunity for the first time to make themselves heard, to elect their officials, hold them responsible, and to establish a new democratic framework that would change the political mentality in the region. The coup has made these young people alienated from the political process again. However, this coup will not ensure the survival of authoritarian regimes forever.

The crackdown against a peaceful revolution and destroying democratic legitimacy will create a more dangerous situation for the future of these regimes and will pave the way for more dramatic and painful political transitions. The popular protest cannot be an alternative to the ballot box and the peaceful transition of power after the democratic process cannot be replaced by a military coup. The coup in Egypt does not bring long-term regime security for countries that resist change and does not make their regimes more sustainable. It only helps to marginalize segments of the opposition and to increase the divide between the government and the people. In addition, the Egyptian coup created a precedent for the power transition, in which the military again acquired a significant source of power. With the support of the army, the people on the street challenged the democratic process, which led to a renewed role for the military to shape the political process.

The West will not win…

The losers of the coup are not limited to the people of Egypt and others in the region. The coup will not benefit other regional powers or Western countries either. First, the military regime, with its initial policies, appears to be returning to the political positions of the previous regime. It is not likely to bring a meaningful peace to the region, especially in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute. With increasing interaction between the domestic and foreign policies of countries, it is not possible to bring peace to the region without the involvement and engagement of the domestic public. The revolution in Egypt and the democratic process provided an excellent opportunity for the formation of a meaningful dialogue with a government that has domestic legitimacy. For decades, one of the most consequential deficiencies of the peace process was the pursuit of this process with governments that have no domestic legitimacy. Under those circumstances, convincing the authoritarian leader may look easier, but in reality it is inherently more problematic than creating peace in the region with the approval of the domestic public.

Moreover, the coup and the disruption of the political process also do not bring any good to the Western policies in the region. The United States with its ambivalent attitude towards the coup makers not only endangered its strategic interest in Egypt, but also lost the support of public opinion. The inability to label a military intervention as a coup and protest the military’s control over elected civilians demonstrates the double standard of Western countries in regard to the Middle East. After the infamous Mosaddegh coup in Iran, the US and Western world had lost a significant dimension of its legitimacy; an act that was remembered and recited in the region for many years. Just like that, the next generation of Egyptians will not forget the ambivalence that US foreign policy makers demonstrated during the first days of the coup. In fact, former US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice admitted this awkward situation by stating that: “For 60 years…. the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.” Now the US and the Western world is in a position in which they chose neither democracy nor stability while claiming to be “on the right side of the history.” Their attempt to wait to see who would be the winner of the political struggle demonstrates a significant problem for how they perceive both US national interests and the people in the region. As the coup in Egypt is not likely to bring peace and stability in Egypt, it will not bring security, stability or peace to the region either, nor will it serve US and Western interests.

In conclusion, the arguments regarding the consequences of the coup in Egypt sound short sighted when they claim that the losers will be the countries that supported popular movements and the Arab Spring in the region, such as Qatar and Turkey. Despite some who cheered for a guided democracy in the Middle East, coups rarely bring stability, security, peace or prosperity to any country. A coup and instability in a country like Egypt, which has been at the centre of the most significant political movements in the Arab world, will not be beneficial for the region in the short or long term. In addition, by setting a precedent to other countries about the role that the military can play in the political process, the coup disappoints and alienates young people on the street as well as the political opposition in the country. None of the regimes in the region can guarantee their survival by creating regimes that are as authoritarian as they are. The fear from the domino effect of democracy may create waves, but supporting reverse waves instead will only make these regimes vulnerable to tsunamis. Finally, for nations who believe that a friendly authoritarian regime is better than a democracy for their interests, that period is already over. There will no longer be peace in the region without liberty and democracy, without full participation of the people in the political process and without governments with democratic legitimacy. Nobody will benefit from the coup in Egypt, in the long term, only those countries that stand “on the right side of history” will get the credit for historical legitimacy.

Kilic Bugra Kanat is an assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.

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