The Coup in Egypt: Tragedy repeating as tragedy

July 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Egypt’s Tahrir Square is once again dominating world news. For the second time in a little more than two years, the army has deposed a president. If the first had ruled as a dictator for 30 years, the second was popularly elected and had been in office for just 12 months. Both times there were massive protests and using these protests as a pretext, Western politicians and their allies in the Middle East have cautiously welcomed the ouster of a democratically elected leader–even calling it a ‘democratic coup’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Egypt’s tragedy now, as Samer S. Shehata puts it is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals ands liberals who are not democrats.”

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Just as the masses there had brought about the ouster of the long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, much larger popular assemblies gathered in the square on June 30, 2013 on the anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi taking office to demand his ouster. Nabuib Sawiris, a wealthy Coptic Christian businessman who founded the Al Masreyeen Al Ahrar party, tweeted that the BBC claimed that the demonstrations against Morsi were the largest in “the history of mankind” and though the BBC had made no such claim, the tweet went viral. 

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Be that as it may, that there was massive opposition to President Morsi was evident by the turnout of crowds demanding his ouster in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere. Notably though these were cities that had voted for a different candidate,  Hamdeen Sabahi–a secular leftist–than for Morsi or his rival in the run-off, Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. That Morsi secured only 51.7 percent of the vote in the run-off against a factotum of the old regime should have indicated the depth of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood that Morsi represented.

The fact that the main secular candidate was able to capture the largest share of the vote only in the major urban centers puts in perspective the anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square. It highlights a sharp urban-rural divide that will only widen if the Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to compete in the elections promised by the military-installed government.

Morsi turned out to be an incredibly incompetent president. Despite his narrow margin of victory, he overreached the mandate given to him especially last November when he sought to place himself above the law–though he quickly reversed himself after the streets erupted in anger. He pushed through a constitution after all the non-Islamic parties had walked out. When jt was put to a snap referendum, the turnout was only 32 percent of the eligible voters as most opposition groups boycotted the referendum.

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Of course, what Morsi did was not very different from what George W. Bush did in the United States–after stealing an election with the help of Supreme Court judges nominated by Republican presidents, he set to rule as if he had a massive mandate to impose a far-right agenda!

Soon after Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s Coptic Christians faced increased attacks and Morsi did nothing, after he came to power, to reassure them.Under the military interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and Morsi’s election, assaults against women rose sharply and the current minister of defense and head of the military who deposed Morsi, General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, Gilbert Achcar, writes

distinguished himself in June 2011 by justifying the “virginity tests” that the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] had inflicted, among other humiliations, on seventeen female demonstrators who had been arrested on Tahrir Square in March.

Morsi had to contend with remnants of the Mubarak regime which were deeply ensconced in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military, Just days before the presidential run-off that Morsi won, Egypt’s Constitutional Court appointed by Mubarak dissolved the first popularly elected lower house of parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. More than a week before the military gave Morsi an ultimatum, it had begun deploying troops in cities without informing him. And the police refused to protect offices of the Muslim Brotherhood from attacks.

 

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Meanwhile, the economy nosedived as Morsi implemented the IMF’s plans to end food and utility subsidies which led in turn to more street protests that ensured that the country’s tourism sector would not recover. When 40 percent of the population was below the poverty line of $2 a day, the IMF’s austerity measures imposed to secure a $4.8 billion loan, compounded the pressures and led to the explosive street protests.With the weakening of the currency, food prices have soared and the World Food Program reports that 31 percent of children experienced stunted growth in 2011. it is not that food is unavailable–just that it is not affordable and the withdrawal of subsidies under IMF directions will only make matters worse.

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None of the candidates seeking to replace Morsi have rejected the IMF’s ruinous austerity drive. Hence, Morsi’s ouster even if followed by an election is not likely to turn Egypt’s economy around. If anything, it could make matters much, much worse. In a remarkably unguarded editorial, the Wall Street Journal opined

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.

Of course, after Pinochet assassinated Salvador Allende, Chile did not begin a transition to democracy for 18 years during which opponents of the regime were routinely tortured and executed en masse. As Amy Davidson writes,

Egyptians might not consider themselves as lucky if Cairo’s sports stadiums were turned into mass-execution sites, as Santiago’s were. (One wonders how many free passes for arbitrary arrests the Egyptian generals will earn from the Journal for each free-market reformer they hire.) 

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Despite Morsi being democratically elected, such is the West’s abhorrence of the Muslim Brotherhood, that neither Washington nor the European capitals have condemned his ouster and called it a military coup. Defending the coup, Tony Blair writes in the Guardian 

I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn’t on its own mean effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. 

David Brooks, goes further–and denies that democracy can even work in Egypt in breathtakingly racist terms:

  It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients. 

Yet, what the coup does most of all is to reverse the Arab Spring which had put the army back in its barracks. The military is once again king maker and future governments are unlikely to defy the military–the military that controls some 30 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy and insulates itself from the economic problems of the masses. The military has not merely ousted Morsi, as Fawaz Gerges notes, “it has ousted democracy.”

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This need not have happened. As the protests grew, Morsi offered to form a government of national unity–when he was on the ropes, he could have been forced to accept a prime minister acceptable to the opposition.

There is no indication that the military–or any government that it installs–is going to reverse the austerity policies that hurts the most vulnerable Egyptians. The military has already withdrawn the offer of prime ministership that it had made to Mohammed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize laureate, as the Islamist Nour Party refused to work with him. Coptic priests continue to be killed and more than 80 women were assaulted in Tahrir Square on the night al-Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster. If they are willing to work with the Islamists, why should the Islamists trust the military after the ousted Morsi? And if they exclude them, they are ignoring the 50 percent who voted for Morsi and the country’s best organized political force.

Morsi’s ouster had region-wide significance. If the world looks idly by, why should Islamists elsewhere participate in democratic processes. As Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, an ultraconservative cleric in Benghazi, Libya says it is now impossible to persuade the militias there to lay down their weapons and trust in democracy:

Do you think I can sell that to the people anymore? I have been saying all along, ‘If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.’ Now they will just say, ‘Look at Egypt,’ and you don’t need to say anything else.

This was the time for the United States to call for the restoration of democracy but once again. Washington and its allies have sided with the anti-democratic forces. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the United States, a day after ousting Morsi, the military demolished the tunnels with Gaza, the tunnels that were vital lifelines to the besieged Palestinians.

The problem of a country where the democrats are not liberal and the liberals are not democrats as Shehata put it so well is not going to be solved any time soon. Democrats must accept that minorities have rights, stakes, and interests that must be protected, and liberals must recognize that armies cannot be king makers in democracies. 

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