During the Cold War, one of the ideological obligations of being a good leftist was caring an awful lot about the Chilean military coup of 1973. That was the revolution that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and deposed President Salvador Allende, the first open Marxist — not mild social democrat, but out and out anti-capitalist Marxist — to ever win a democratic election anywhere in the world.
And herein lay the the left’s most compelling beef. Not that Pinochet had deposed a socialist government per se, but a democratically-elected one. If there was an episode that exposed the sheer vile hypocrisy of the supposedly pro-liberty, anti-Communist right in Chile, and the supposedly pro-liberty, anti-Communist Nixon White House that covertly backed the coup, they said, it was this. Opposing the dictatorial Marxists in the Eastern Bloc was one thing, but to argue a left-wing democrat could justify the creation of an outright military dictatorship was to expose the grotesque incoherence of the right’s Cold War values.
The folks who were happiest about the military coup that deposed Egypt’s democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday were far closer to Allendites than Pinochetistas. For the entire duration of Morsi’s conservative, Islamist administration, which lasted almost exactly one year from his election in the summer of 2012, his harshest critics were those of the secular, liberal variety. They saw his rule as heralding the beginning of an Iranian-style theocracy in their nation, and the establishment of a new, fundamentalist dictatorship not much better than the Mubarak regime that preceded it.
Is there anything to these charges? When you read attempts to chronicle the definitive “case against Morsi,” such as this one from the South African Mail and Guardian, you come across a lot of stuff claiming the President was “seen to be” too supportive of this-or-that Islamic radical, or that he’d “failed to act” swiftly enough in pursuing this-or-that reform. Overall, many of the man’s most vile crimes — such as tolerating police torture and the harassment of unfriendly journalists — were really more about perpetuating the Mubarak status quo than anything uniquely regressive On questions of economic mismanagement, one can only say well, he’s had one year.
The most fashionable charge of all, of course, is that Morsi, and Morsi-friendly Islamist political parties, overwhelmingly dominated every step of the writing of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak constitution. Which is certainly true, but as I noted in an earlier essay, this was also the predictable result of the secular-liberal opposition continuously boycotting the various committees and assemblies in control of the process after failing to win enough seats in the parliament responsible for appointing them. And even then, the Islamist-flavored constitution that was eventually written, and endorsed by 64% of the Egyptian electorate, was hardly a totalitarian document. You can read the whole thing here. While it enshrines Sharia Law and describes Islamic principles as the “principal source of legislation,” it also acknowledges gender equality, concedes special rights to the country’s Jewish and Christian minorities, bans sectarian political parties, forbids media censorship, and outlines a perfectly decent republican form of government with plenty of checks and balances.
Iran’s constitution grants sweeping executive authority to an unelected council of clerics and a tyrannical “supreme leader.” Saudi Arabia has no constitution at all, just a few “basic laws” that declare “God’s book… are its constitution.” The Morsi vision of Egypt was very far from any of that.
But the critics had already made up their minds, and thousands of secular-minded young progressives began filling the streets last week, declaring they’d had enough of all this. Government functions were brought to a virtual standstill, and the ensuing July 3 coup, which was led by defense minister Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and installed the Chief Justice, Adli Mansour, as figurehead president, easily justified itself on the basis of bringing “stability” to a nation rendered torn and ungovernable by uncompromising polarization between government and opposition.
I may sound like something of a Morsi apologist in portraying events this way, but that’s not the intent. Much of the deposed president’s fundamentalist social policies were doubtlessly horrible and offensive, as fundamentalist social policies tend to be. And it seems obvious that Morsi’s unaccomplished, irrelevant background as an engineer and religious agitator gave him few skills for addressing the truly horrendous magnitude of Egytpa’s economic malaise.
And yet, he was still elected.
David Brooks wrote a much-talked about column in the New York Times the other day, entitled, unambiguously “Defending the Coup.” His thesis was that undemocratic means can sometimes be justified in unseating a democratically-elected government so long as said government possesses a totalitarian ideology fundamentally at odds with the long-term continuance of democracy.
Brooks doesn’t mention this obvious example, but most of us can probably argue that a military coup would have been justified against Adolph Hitler’s elected government, for instance, since the Nazis had an explicit agenda of permanently dissolving all of Germany’s democratic institutions. The backers of the Pinochet coup, likewise, held that the rest of the world had proven pretty definitively that any Communist president (elected or not) would invariably impose a Soviet-style dictatorship, and therefore it was justifiable to take a pre-emptive strike to restore democracy (which is what Pinochet did do… eventually). But all of these sorts of situations put a tremendous onus on the coupers themselves to make their anti-totalitarian case as clearly and unambiguously as possible. Otherwise it just looks like sore loser syndrome. Which is what the Morsi coup looks like.
Every democratic society will produce politicians and leaders from across the ideological spectrum and some of them will inevitably be religious and conservative. In a religious and conservative country, which is what Egypt appears to be, at least judging from its post-Mubarak elections, those same guys will get voted into power every so often. But religious conservatism, which is what “Islamism” basically means in the Middle East, is not unto itself a form of tyranny — particularly not when it explicitly agrees to conduct itself within the confines of a democratic constitution.
The real danger of tyranny in Egypt is that the cycle of the last three years will become the new normal. Prolonged Islamist rule may lead to undemocratic places eventually, but what’s undemocratic right now is a political system in which every random partisan faction believes they possess the unilateral right to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the nation’s government, and provoke mass social chaos until they can goad the military into staging a coup. Where no election is ever valid unless it generates the “right” answer, and where no constitution is worth obeying unless your own people wrote it.
For the time being, Egypt’s secularists are back in charge, and to western eyes, they’re certainly more sympathetic than the alternative. But out of office or not, and despite a rash of military arrests, Morsi’ Muslim Brotherhood isn’t going anywhere. In fact, they’ll now probably be more radical and frightening than ever, having learned such a dangerous lesson about how power is won and lost in their country.