The crowds cheering the ouster of Muhammad Morsi, president of Egypt, may not be cheering in a few months. The Egyptian military has never been a champion of democracy, and in carrying out a coup to oust the elected president it has thwarted the democratic process.
In electing Morsi, the Egyptian people elected a Muslim Brotherhood candidate who has tried to promote the narrow goals of the Brotherhood. But if the people sanction the illegitimate ouster of the president whom they elected, they are undermining the very process that allowed them to vote.
The military has occupied a dominant and corrupt place in Egyptian society, enriching itself while maintaining a stranglehold on the economy. Under the former president, Hosni Mubarak, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subject to persecution and imprisonment. Morsi’s ouster could end up driving the Brotherhood underground again, which could intensify violent jihadi reaction in the region.
The liberal demonstrators of Tahrir Square were pleased that the military carried out the removal of Mubarak and allowed a constitutional process to move forward. But Egypt’s economy has suffered, and with crowds in the street clamoring for change, the military has acted again.
Who is to say that the military is not acting to protect its own economic interests against the incompetent management of the Morsi government? That is a more likely motive than Morsi’s unpopularity with the masses. The masses could have ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from office in coming elections. Now the military has turned persecuted members of the Brotherhood into martyrs.
Morsi did not exactly represent the flowering of democracy. The adoption of the constitution and the quick elections that brought him to power were of dubious legitimacy. Further, the constitution contained provisions protecting the military’s interests. Critics have charged Morsi with excluding non-Brotherhood elements of society and failing to promote inclusiveness.
From a pragmatic point of view, therefore, one may want to give the military the benefit of the doubt, as if Egyptian authorities can just keep trying at the democratic process until they get the result they like. But that is rigging the game, which is the likely aim of the military.
Jackson Diehl, writing in The Washington Post, has described how military coups mounted ostensibly to save democracy from its failings seem always to fail. He cites examples in Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand and Pakistan. That is why it’s good for struggling regimes to lurch toward improving themselves without military interference.
U.S. law requires the government to withhold military aid from foreign governments that are victims of military coups. Sen. Patrick Leahy, as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, has indicated he means to hold Egypt to a high standard. In his statement he criticized Morsi for squandering a historic opportunity, “preferring to govern by fiat rather than work with other political parties to do what is best for all Egyptians.” But Leahy makes clear he understands that, according to U.S. law, “U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
As his subcommittee reviews future aid to Egypt, Leahy said, he will be watching to see if the Egyptian military makes good on its promise to move quickly to restore democracy. “As the world’s oldest democracy,” Leahy said, “this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”
The Obama administration has been reluctant to use the term “coup” in describing the ouster of Morsi. The White House is aware that we depend on Egypt for stability in the region.
Leahy’s position is useful in applying pressure both on the Obama administration and the Egyptian military. The aim is to allow Egyptians to sort out the muddle of their politics, moving toward a process that allows all segments of Egyptian society to participate and eliminating the grounds for rebellion by the Brotherhood or any other suppressed faction.
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