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What can we learn from Egypt 2013?

January 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Genuine democracy requires practice and partnership, and cannot be realised without the participation of the people. Mobilising crowds to replace the ballot box is very dangerous because a lust for power and authority can be cast in popular demands and gain pseudo-legitimacy. The coup in Egypt is a case in point.

Displaying all the characteristics of a coup, it is dishonest to pretend that it is anything else. Overthrowing a president elected in the first free and fair democratic elections in the country for decades; suspending the constitution which had been approved by a public referendum; dissolving the Legislative (Shura) Council; closing opposition media outlets; and arresting people by the score without warrants are all signs of a coup so it shouldn’t be labelled differently.

It is erroneous to draw parallels between the events of June 30 and the January 25 Revolution. The Mubarak regime did not derive legitimacy from democratic elections and its supporters had no real presence on the ground, whereas President Morsi was a duly-elected head of state with millions of supporters around the country.

The army cannot expect its excuses for the coup to be taken seriously. For a start, it should not have taken sides in a political dispute, nor should it have claimed that Morsi’s performance in office gave it no other option but to over throw him. In all seriousness, how reasonable is it to judge a president after just one year in office when he inherited such a dysfunctional state of affairs in the first place?

It is worth considering what has happened in Egypt with events in Chile in 1973 when a US-funded coup overthrew the government there. Chile’s coup was instigated by the CIA whereas in Egypt it was poor economic performance, government wrongdoings, the state of polarisation and a campaign of incitement against the Muslim Brotherhood which were cited as the main reasons for the coup. There is little real evidence of external interference or involvement prior to the coup taking place, although accusations have been levelled at the Gulf States, America and, inevitably, Israel.

Even so, it is clear that the two coups took place in the context of major global and regional events; in Chile’s case it was the Cold War while in Egypt it was the Arab Spring. Both elected presidents who were overthrown were civilians; Chile’s Salvador Allende was a physician and Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi is an engineer, and they both had narrow election victories. They were both overthrown by military commanders in Augusto Pinochet and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who had been promoted to Commander-in-Chief by their respective presidents. Chile and Egypt both had constitutional crises and massive economic and social instability as a prelude to the coups. Last but not least, the clash in both cases was between two ideological camps; conservative-dominated Congress of Chile (US supported) against the socialists (USSR supported) and the Muslim Brotherhood’s “moderate” Islam versus the liberal, secular camp.

Throughout its year in power, the Brotherhood was unable to replicate the success of other Islamic parties in the region, notably Turkey’s AKP whose political and economic programme is taken by many Arabs as a model. From this it can be inferred that the brotherhood’s lack of political experience was instrumental in its downfall.

The most striking mistake the movement made was in approving the new constitution, despite opposition from Christians and civil society, causing an unnecessary rift. This widened after a series of changes brought about by the government led by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, who appointed new governors and refused a national consensus government. The dismissal of presidential adviser Khaled Alameddine, a member of the senior leadership of the Salafi Al-Nour Party, is a stark example of how the Brotherhood began to lose its allies.

As suspicions about the government’s motives increased, the exclusion of non-Brotherhood actors became evident; the appointment of its own members, supporters and allies to key roles appeared to confirm the fears. This was reinforced by Morsi’s inability to form partnerships with non-Muslims and people from other sectors of society.

Furthermore, and following the hasty dismissal of Defence Minister Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Anan, discontent among the security and military forces became prevalent. This led dozens of officers to support the coup, especially after Morsi’s accusations that the army was incapable of protecting Muslim Brotherhood buildings.

This tense environment was in tandem with poor political performance, the continued economic downturn, increased unemployment, lack of investment and accusations of marginalising several segments of Egyptian society; all led to a growing state of polarisation in the country.

In the wake of the coup it should be stressed that trying to disqualify and exclude the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political or social actor from political life will have serious repercussions. The longer that violence, social hatred and polarisation lasts, the less likelihood there is of a sound democratic environment developing. Like all fledgling democracies, Egypt must understand that tolerance should replace hatred and partnership should replace exclusion as that is the way to develop a healthy and stable society.

The longer that the coup-backed “interim government” stays in power, the more likely it is that it will turn into a dictatorship, even if it provides some sort of democratic fig-leaf. The moment that such a regime senses a threat to its power it will boost its own control over the state.

In conclusion, it is clear that Egypt was within striking distance of having a sound democracy but this will not now be realised unless and until there is a peaceful transition of power from military to civilian institutions. The people need to be educated about democracy and how to exercise their democratic will peacefully, and made to understand that democracies have winners and losers and while the former govern the latter must form a strong opposition to hold the government to account. That is a lesson that the politicians must learn as well; election victory doesn’t mean that you have a mandate for dictatorship or a right to overthrow the government.

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.