Egypt’s Coup: In Order to Save Democracy, They Had to Destroy It

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

5 July 2013

The title sums up Egypt’s predicament. The country’s young democracy, like its counterparts elsewhere, had gotten off to a rocky start. A new constitution, formed by a Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated assembly, alienated the country’s women, Christian minorities, and progressive youth. President Mohammad Morsi, who had been elected with barely 51 percent of the votes in last year’s elections, took his rule as a mandate to do whatever he wanted. Mr. Morsi turned to authoritarian methods to push his religious agenda. Economic conditions deteriorated, mass protests broke out.

Last Monday, 1 July, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, issued a statement warning the opposition and President Morsi to resolve their differences. When the political actors failed, General Sisi moved his forces, removed Mr. Morsi from office, and installed Adly Mansour, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as interim president.

The coup reflected the textbook logic of any military takeover in an unstable democracy: in order to save democracy, the Egyptian military had to destroy it.

What happens now? Unfortunately, neither Egypt’s own history nor examples from other Middle Eastern countries are reassuring. Egypt had experienced a coup in 1952. The coup’s strongman, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, promised to lead the country to development and democracy. Soon, however, Nasser decided that he could not bring both wealth and democracy to his land so he forsake the latter to achieve the former (with immense popular support, it must be said). Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, was much less committed to Nasser’s socialism. Nevertheless, he held on to Nasser-like authoritarianism. Mobarak, a very different man than both Nasser and Sadat, also ran his country in an autocratic fashion.

The act of voting hasn't turned Egypt's dreams of democracy into a reality.
The act of voting hasn’t turned Egypt’s dreams of democracy into a reality.

Other Middle Eastern countries shared a similar fate. Turkey had four coups in the second half of the twentieth century (and almost had another one in 2007-8). Last month’s mass protests revealed how Turkish democracy is still an incomplete project. The 1970 coup in Syria brought the Assad dynasty to power. Iraq’s multiple coups from 1958 through the late 1960s enabled the rise of Saddam Hussein.

The greatest problem with coups is that they weaken the institutions – especially a free media and parliament – that could balance acrimonies among different segments of society. Egypt is already witnessing this dangerous dynamic. Conspiracy theories are afoot: the Muslim Brotherhood claims that the interim president, Adly Mansour, is secretly Jewish while Mr. Morsi’s supporters are digging in for a long fight.

Now, Egypt’s military faces an enormous task: it has to draft a constitution and build the political institutions that would balance the demands and expectations of all Egyptians – be they Muslim, Christian, secular, male, female, traditional, or Western-oriented. Otherwise, in a few years it could easily find itself in a position where it would have to save democracy by destroying it again.

Barın Kayaoğlu, a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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