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Old habits die hard

Between 1945 and 2008 an estimated 363 coups were staged on the African continent. Of that number, only 88 led to the transfer of power to civilian rule. Throughout the period, military rule has more often than not hampered democratic progress, and by extension, economic development. Egypt has not been immune from this affliction. Since seizing power in 1952, its military has dominated the country's political life. Old habits die hard and the coup d'état against the country's first elected civilian president is damning proof.


Elsewhere across Africa, there is a general realisation of the need to put an end to this toxic undemocratic tradition. As it had done with Niger in February 2010, the African Union rightfully took the principled decision last week to suspend Egypt's membership. After being in the vanguard of African decolonisation and a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt now joins a forlorn club of political outcasts.

As far as the African Union was concerned, its decision had nothing to do with support for Dr Mohamed Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood. It was essentially about respect for the will of the Egyptian people and the legitimacy inherent in the elected presidency.

There was no corresponding decisiveness from the European Union headquarters in Brussels. On the contrary, the coup was welcomed in several European capitals. The International Quartet's envoy for the Middle East, Tony Blair, claimed that after "17 million" Egyptians had taken to the streets military intervention was unavoidable. Ten years earlier, when two million British citizens marched in London against the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Blair ignored them with utter disdain.
In today's political climate, Blair is unlikely to attach any weight to the poll conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Media Studies and Public Opinion, which revealed that 63 per cent of Egyptians are opposed to the removal of President Morsi from office. Only 26 per cent support the coup.

An unforgettable image of the last week has been the placard carried by anti-coup protesters which read in English, "Where is my vote?" The image conveyed a deep sense of betrayal by the army which overthrew their elected president and suspended the constitution for which 64 per cent of the electorate had voted. That poignant pro-democracy message was clearly intended for the west and its democracies. No public debate about Muslims ever concludes without allegations that Muslims want to destroy western values and way of life. Today, Egyptians would be justified to make the same claim in reverse after witnessing western collaboration in, and support for, the coup against their president and democratic institutions.

By themselves, survey statistics are meaningless if they are not put into context and interpreted correctly. Why does 63 per cent reject the coup? For six decades the Egyptian people languished under military rule, which left 42 per cent of the population subsisting below the poverty line of $2 a day.

Of course, the people of Egypt have every right to be alarmed and sceptical because General Sisi did not even disguise his agenda. He began with a vicious witch-hunt against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and attacks on freedom of the press.

The alliance of so-called liberals and secularists may have got their man, Morsi, but the road to the presidential palace remains rocky. There is certainly no guarantee that the general who betrayed Morsi will remain loyal to them.

In Egypt, as in other parts of Africa the scourge of coups d'état have been emblematic not of change but power grabs. Instead of being a vehicle for democratisation they have invariably led to autocratic rule and tyranny.

Will the persecution and imprisonment of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood bring an end to the Islamic project? The answer is no. Dr Rashad Al Bayoumi was one of the persons detained after the overthrow of president Morsi. He was first imprisoned in 1954 by the military regime and released in 1971 after Gamal Abdel Nasser's death the previous year.

The July 2013 coup d'état has set back the process of peaceful and organised transition to democratic rule in Egypt. It is expected to have a similar impact across the region. For one thing it has given everyone an opportunity to reveal their true colours. For the first time in two and a half years Syria and the Gulf kingdoms are singing from the same page; they still share, after all the bloodshed, certain commonalities. Foremost among them is the fear of democratic change and the transition of power to the people.

Meanwhile, Western support for the military take-over in Egypt has reopened the debate about democracy, its nature and values, and for whom it is intended. After going to the polls five times since the overthrow of Mubarak and voting for the Freedom and Justice Party, its candidates and policies, Egyptians are now told by the west that power and legitimacy does not always come from the ballot box. They have thus been left with no other choice but to pursue their aspirations on the streets, for which they will no doubt be roundly condemned by Western democracies. Old habits certainly do die hard.


AfricaCommentary & AnalysisEgypt
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