Choosing an Egyptian government

Choosing an Egyptian government
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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.


  1. Vic

    The Muslim brotherhood has been here before back in the 50s. The won a majority in local elections and it looked like they were about to take power, Everyone got paranoid about the risk to democracy, the secularists took over (backed by the west), and a load of moderate MB members got arrested.

    We got Ayman al-Zawahiri and co out of that mess.

  2. Alex

    I don't think Morsi's Islamist policies were the source of the angst against him so much as his strongman policies. Morsi's intent was very clearly to use the power of the government to co-opt the Egyptian state into being a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood by harassing, shuttering, or otherwise disempowering dissent through the state. Morsi is fundamentally anti-democratic. Should the people have just welcomed a new dictatorship out of the ashes of Mubarak just because it got elected once?

  3. @RedneckGaijin

    I suggest reading the article attached, biased as it undoubtedly is. Long story short: the single greatest agitators were the Muslim Brotherhood, industriously making enemies and influencing people. They took their manufactured electoral victories as a mandate to completely alter the nature of Egypt- and the Egyptian people, by and large, got sick of it. After all- 14 million? That's almost one-fifth of the entire population of Egypt. That would be like 60 million Americans taking to the streets of the USA. That's not agitprop. That's not astroturfing. That's a geniune withdrawal of the consent of the people from a government.

  4. jonasbelford

    Hmm, not necessarily. Keep in mind that you'd have to take into account how many of those protestors voted for Morsi vs. how many protestors didn't. The raw numbers of a turnout don't mean much without some parsing. After all, President Bush had very low approval ratings near the end of his term, so does that mean there was a genuine withdrawal of consent for him?

  5. Jake_Ackers

    Depends. If Bush did something universally and unilaterally unconstitutional then he would of been impeached. The Egyptian military pretty much did the same, they impeached them. Moreover, 14 million protestors are more than just about a 1/5 of the country. Out of those 14 million lets assume most of them are voters. Sources say that about 50 million people were eligible to vote out of a population in excess of 85 million. So that is 14 out of 50. That is 28%. Then take into account the ones that aren't protesting.

    Plus Moris granted himself unlimited powers in Nov 2012. That man effectively became a dictator. The military frankly gave the entire country plenty of time to correct itself. This is one of the few times the military has saved democracy with a forceful removal of power. Moreover, not installing itself in the seat.

  6. Monte

    The military can NOT impeach a democratically elected leader because they are NOT a branch of government. They are not an elected body and thus can NOT accurately represent what the people want the way congress can. You can only guess at the possible numbers, but without a vote we have no way to estimate how many would actually support his FORCED removal. Heck even based on your estimates you can't even make the claim of 51% support as you have no indication of how many are sitting at home. This is NOT how you get rid of a democratically elected official.

    Furthermore, the Parliament of Egypt still had the power to impeach adn replace Morsi; he could have been dealt with by simply reinstating the parliament and hoping that pressure from the protestors would lead to them replacing him. Furtharmore, Morsi did NOTHING to stop elections that would go on in 3 years, so if Parliament didn't get rid of him, then voters would be able to get rid of him during the next election. The ONLY time that the military should intervene with dealing with an elected official is when he actually removes ALL of the democractic methods of getting rid of him and thus becoming a true dictator; such as extending his term indefinitely, outlawing opposing political parties, suspending elections, or actions like that.

    The military has tainted the entire democractic process. Democracy relies on trust that the elections will be fair, but after staging a coup against an elected official instead of using democractic channels you destroy that trust. Now if a party loses in an election, why should they believe it was because they were unpopular? the military showed its willing to interfere so why shouldn't they believe that the military rigged the election against them because they don't like them. heck why should they bother running at all when the military is able and willing to perform a coup against them at any time? Democracy is now tainted.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Elections are useless if they are not free and fair. Even if they are free they might not be fair and if they are fair they might not be free.

    Example, North Korea and Cuba. They have elections but they are not free nor fair. Russian and Venezuelan elections are free but not fair. You can say what you want (for the most part) but the votes won't be counted right. Iran is even worst.

    Just because you can vote doesn't mean you can give speeches, protest, rally, or assemble. Democracy does not happen only on election day, it happens every day. Morsi effectively stopped democracy every other day of the year.

    Moreover, we don't know how many people are protesting but that doesn't matter. It isn't a democracy, when you have a percentage of a populace, prevented from participating in the electoral process (free speech and protesting etc.) on non-election day. How many countries does the majority get a solid vote and solid campaigning but the opposition is oppressed?

  8. Monte

    Absolutely NOTHING that morsi did would have prevented free and fair elections

  9. @RedneckGaijin

    Sorry, article:

  10. OldsVistaCruiser

    I'm proud to be a Marxist. I follow the teachings of Groucho! ;)

  11. Alfred

    I enjoy listening to the wise words of Harpo. He has great insights on the world.

  12. Jake_Ackers

    This is the military being smart in two ways. 1) It doesn't want to go to war because of some terrorist leader who will most likely attack a Western power. Or at least back a plot. 2)The military has a lot of legitimacy considering it is very young and just put in someone who has some what of a legitimacy. Especially the Supreme Justice who will make sure the laws are followed.

    In any other place, it would of been a General who took over. Or the military would collectively back a General who would be their voice as happened in Brazil in the past or even a junta. Yes this bad for democracy but in the long run if it stays as it seems, with a non-military leader and without a dictator, it is good for Egypt. I know Turkey also has a check like this on its civilian government. All in all, it prevents terrorism and war. Which is what the military was concerned about I believe. Moreover, Morsi took unlimited power back in Nov. The man became a dictator. The military saved Egypt from Morsi.

    Also a stable democracy is considered to be one after, two or three elections legitimate elections in a row, more so of the executive power not just elections overall.

  13. Monte

    Morsi still could have been voted out by Parliament or voted out during the next elections. That is NOT a dictatorship.

  14. Jake_Ackers

    He suspended the Constitution. Just because suffrage was technically still allowed doesn't mean any other rights were.

  15. Ryan Archer

    Dude. What. The. Fuck.

    I'm sorry, but this is by far the worst article you've ever written. Morsi essentially declared himself above the law within months of being elected. If that's not out-and-out totalitarianism, I don't know what is. And you completely failed to mention that crucial fact anywhere in the article, which, by the way, does indeed read like a Morsi apology piece.

  16. Monte

    Totalitarism requires that the "dictator" make it so he can not be replaced; it requires the end of free and fair elections. Morsi had not done that.

  17. Dryhad

    I don't think that's necessarily true and even if it isn't technically "totalitarian" the fact remains that democracy does not absolve repressive regimes. I wouldn't even say David Brooks is necessarily right that the justification of the coup is the cause of 'greater democracy' or whatever, the simple existence of a democratic process (and bear in mind that what constitutes a democratic process is a pretty broad umbrella) cannot allow a government free reign over all aspects of its citizens' lives. _That's_ what totalitarianism is, and arguing that they technically retain a single freedom, that of suffrage, strikes me as a pretty weak argument.

  18. J.J. McCullough

    I didn't mention it because he never actually did that. He talked about removing the power of judicial oversight over presidential decisions but ultimately backed down. And that was under the old Mubarak constitution anyway, which has now (or at least was) replaced by a new, democratic constitution that clearly features plenty of checks and balances.

  19. Ryan Archer

    He still TRIED to do it. The only reason he backed down was because of mass street protests and a near-revolt by Egyptian civil servants. Had he not backed down, there was a very real chance of a coup removing him from office…as evidenced by the coup a week and a half ago. A frustrated totalitarian is a totalitarian nevertheless.

  20. KKoro

    Aaaaand…if he's unable to actually do anything totalitarian, and is -willing- to back down in the face of protest, how is it justified to discard the democratic process in favor of bringing in a group that did and CURRENTLY IS performing many of the totalitarian crimes Morsi was feared of bringing about?

  21. Virgil

    I think there is something to be said for how messy getting a democratically elected government is in the first place. Case in point…England where religious radicals….puritans…fought with supporters of monarchy for around 70 years prior to the establishment of the constitutional monarchy. Or we could take France where secular radicals clashed with Church military and monarchs from 1789 to 1871, and where the military itself was a potent threat through the Dryfus affair. My point is that these things tend to be messy…tend to start with few if any real good guys and take years to play out because there are no good guys. Religious conservativism can be destabilizing or stabilizing….see for example the history of the Christian Democrats in Italy or Germany after 1945 for a positive example….but until the religious communities decide that they want a democratic constitution they are likely to incline toward tyranny. The Muslim Brotherhood has not yet become a party for liberalism and so we are likely to see great instability before this matter ends.

  22. Alexis Merkkceitee

    Turmoil is no good unless the commotion is in favor of a democratic government progressing in the name and behest of the betterment of their people.Its truly unfortunate dictators are historically the apitamy of power and wielding the office they are elected too.One can argue and protest to what manner they should live,but the fairness regarded too is to what degree in which one should overdue its rite to excerise their rights?

  23. HeartRight

    I feel a bit left out. Possibly I am the last person on the planet who considers it IRRELEVANT what reasoning is used to send either an Islamist or a Marxist to his demise. I may as well agonize over the exact reasoning usd to justify PRISM. Means are just that – means. The only relevant matter is the outcome.