The man undoubtedly cooing as he watched the military coup against Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected President, was his authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s prison cell must now be a cheerier place, and one reason stands out. For all of their vocal hatred of the ex-leader and apparent objection to everything ‘Mubarakist’, the Tahrir revolutionaries have just proven themselves to be the most faithful followers of his core legacy – anything but the Brotherhood.
President Mubarak for decades justified his undemocratic rule with a warning that the alternative would be the scary beards of the freedom-trampling Muslim Brotherhood. He used that argument to great effect at home and abroad. It seems to have sunken in more than he could ever have imagined, even among his most vociferous critics. So much in fact, that the self-declared bearers of the liberal torch have just agitated for, supported and celebrated a military coup.
Some might say nonsense; this has everything to do with experiencing a year of Brotherhood rule under President Morsi and little to do with the Mubarak legacy. Not so fast. The Morsi year was hardly a success story- the product of an impossible inheritance, compounded by some very ill-considered decisions on Morsi’s part, alongside a restive population understandably impatient for change. But to embrace the army as the great liberator just as it was busy deposing a democratically elected president and upper House of Parliament, moving tanks against rival protestors, arresting political leaders and shutting down TV stations, surely that requires a large dose of pre-existing prejudice. From day one of Morsi’s election to day 366 (when the military coup ultimatum was announced) it was more the opposition than the presidency who rejected power-sharing and compromise, insisting instead on zero-sum politics.
All of which is very bad news for Egypt’s future. A functioning Egyptian democracy will require a successful non-Islamist democratic project and a successful Islamist democratic project. Both woke up in disarray on July 4. The Tahrir protesters abandoned at least two key democratic principles- respect for outcomes expressed at the ballot box and the non-interference of the military in politics. If the Tamarod (rebel) movement, behind the latest anti-Morsi mobilization, really had 22 million supporters as it claimed, then that should have been translated into votes in parliamentary elections scheduled by President Morsi for later this year. If there were grounds for doing so, a new Parliamentary majority could then have impeached the President.
Some may argue that this is naïve, that elections cannot be trusted when Islamists are in power. Yet such a conclusion is both premature and unproven. Are free and fair elections really more likely now that the military has recast its long shadow over Egyptian politics and in such an intimidating fashion? Parliamentary elections were on offer. Tamarod and the National Salvation Front opposition groups instead chose the extra-legal measure of a military coup as a first resort. To then accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of being the bad democrats should have Egyptians looking up the word ‘chutzpah’ in their dictionaries.
This is not a victory for freedom but for the old regime, or more precisely the Egyptian deep-state- a bureaucratic, military, and business elite, that never went away, is considered to be the real power in Egypt and that just reasserted its interests. In Turkey, the democratic Islamist movement of Prime Minister Erdogan took many years to largely neutralise the deep state. As in Turkey, liberal secularists in Egypt have apparently decided that the democratic mutation on offer from the deep state is preferable to a full democracy, which confers a level playing field on Islamists.
But perhaps the greatest set back this coup has delivered is to the democratic Islamist project itself, without which, stable, open, inclusive and rule based governance is unlikely to take root. A democracy for everyone except Islamists will be handicapped and ultimately fail in a country like Egypt with a large community of religious believers and in which the Brotherhood is a popular and socially-embedded movement. President Morsi and large segments of the Brotherhood, after long periods of harsh persecution and after difficult internal debates, ultimately endorsed the democratic electoral process. That decision just had sand kicked in its face, and by the bucketful, undermining the movement’s more democratic wing and empowering its more radical wing. Is this more naivety – is a democratic Islamist an oxymoron? Let’s not be determinist or allow Egyptian generals and secularists to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And remember, the Brotherhood itself is also a diverse movement, Morsi represented one governing approach, but the coup and subsequent crackdown will be perceived as a wholesale assault on the movement rather than a commentary on Morsi’s particular management and leadership style.
Daniel Levy is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in London. He is also senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.