Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Coup, denial and myth-making

By Steven Fish

Morsi at press conference

One of the most remarkable things about the military coup d'etat in Egypt is the combination of denial and myth-making it has prompted. The U.S.  government denies that a military coup even took place. American law requires cessation of certain forms of economic assistance to countries that have suffered coups, and the Obama administration wishes to avoid offending the Egyptian military. Some observers also refuse to call the massacre of July 8 a massacre, though troops sprayed participants in a sit-in with machine-gun fire, killing 55 people and injuring hundreds of others who were protesting the coup against Mohammed Morsi. Perhaps most remarkably, many observers believe that the military coup advances the cause of democracy in Egypt.

Morsi at press conference

It is important to establish some facts. First, the action of July 3 was a military coup. When the army issues an ultimatum stating that it will depose an elected government in 48 hours unless that government meets certain demands, and then makes good on its threat and arrests the elected president and several hundred of his associates and suspends the constitution, a military coup has taken place. The fact that the coup apparently enjoyed substantial popular support does not make it less of a coup. Some coups are popular.

The action of July 3, moreover, differed starkly from what took place in February 2011. In 2011, the military withdrew its support from Hosni Mubarak after having sustained him in power for three decades. In July 2013, the military staged a premeditated coup d'etat; in February 2011 it merely delivered a coup de grace. In 2011, the military was ending its own reign, which had lasted for nearly six decades; in 2013, it re-established it. The Mubarak government was never elected. It was effectively a military government. It inherited power from the unelected government of Anwar Sadat in 1981, which in turn inherited power from the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, which came to power in a military coup in 1952. Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser were all military officers. They ruled by virtue of their control over the armed forces and the secret police, not authority gained at the ballot box. The military's cessation of support for Mubarak in February 2011 commenced the military's withdrawal from power, not its seizure of power. On July 3, 2013, the military took power back.

The military has appointed Adly Mansour as interim president, thus showing that it wishes to put a civilian face on the regime. Given the illegitimacy of military rule in the 21st century and the need to keep the aid pipeline open, it is unsurprising that the military chose not to place a uniformed general in the office of the presidency. But Mansour, who served as a justice on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court for two decades, is the military's man.

Second, the slaughter of scores of demonstrators and the wounding of hundreds of others by army troops on July 8 was a massacre. That the dead and wounded were Islamists does not alter the fact. The attack on the demonstrators has been accompanied by arrests of hundreds of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose only crime is apparently their political affiliation. The violence and the arrests reprise the behaviour of the military and the secret police under Mubarak; in fact, they represent little else than a reversion to pre-2011 business.

Egyptians celebrating on Tahrir Square

Third, the coup did not advance democracy in Egypt. Coups against elected governments do not and cannot have such an effect. When public opinion turns against elected officials in a democracy, the people toss leaders out in the next election. They do not call the military out of the barracks to depose and arrest their elected officials.

In rare cases in which an elected government is engaged in mass violence against the citizenry or is committed to liquidating opposition and cancelling future elections — the "one person, one vote, one time" scenario of Nazi infamy — a military coup may be justified. But the Brotherhood, despite the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian bigotry of some of its officials, committed no atrocities and showed no inclination to shut down the political system.

Despite fears that it would re-enact Iran in 1979, when the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini snuffed out dissent, the Morsi government tolerated opposition in the corridors or power, the media, and the streets.

Much attention has been focused on Morsi and his intransigent incompetence. But July 3, 2013 is about much more than Morsi and the Brotherhood. It is about the future of democracy in Egypt. An ominous precedent has been established: the military reserves the right to depose a democratically elected government and scrap a constitution that was adopted overwhelmingly by the people in a free referendum. Another inauspicious precedent is being established as well: key foreign powers will support coup-makers. If necessary, they will simply shut their eyes and deny that a coup took place.

For many Egyptians, to support a coup against leaders who they themselves brought to power at the ballot box only a year or two ago, may be distressing, but it is explicable. Egyptians have less than two years experience with free elections, free media, and free association. They are also caught in the grinder of an economic downturn that the Morsi government only exacerbated. But for outside observers to refrain from condemning the coup, the round-up of Brotherhood leaders, and the massacre of Morsi supporters, is unconscionable. It sets a dangerous precedent that only diminishes the hope for robust democratisation in the Arab world.

Cross-posted from The Indian Express.