Egypt needs elections, not generals

July 4, 2013

Mohamed Morsi’s one-year rule of Egypt was disastrous. He ruled by fiat, alienated potential allies and failed to stabilize the country’s spiraling economy. But a military coup is not an answer to Egypt’s problems.  It will exacerbate, not ease, Egypt’s vast political divide.

The Egyptian military’s primary interest is maintaining its privileged role in society and sprawling network of businesses. Like the Pakistani military now and the Brazilian military in the past, its desire to maintain its economic interests will slow desperately needed economic and political reforms.

There is little reason to have faith in Egypt’s broken political process at this point. But the best way to ease the country’s bitter divisions are immediate elections that include the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thursday’s wide crackdown on the Brotherhood, which ranged from the issuing of arrest warrants for 200 Islamists to the shutdown of pro-Brotherhood television stations, were steps in the wrong direction. So was the return to power of several Mubarak-era officials identified with Egypt’s “deep state,” a reference to the powerful security branches of the Mubarak government.

“Political inclusiveness is the only way forward,” said Lauren Bohn, an American journalist who has covered Egypt. “And many worry they won’t see much of that in the days ahead.”

First, many different – and seemingly contradictory things – are occurring in the country. The protesters that have filled Tahrir Square, David Ignatius noted Wednesday in the Washington Post, are a genuine citizens’ movement.

They are demanding basic rights, an accountable government and dignity. Most important, they will not accept autocratic rule from military dictators or Islamist political parties.

The same can be said of the protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The remnants of Iran’s Green Movement, who elected a relative moderate as the country’s new president, roughly fit that description as well. All these developments are positive and a sign of empowered citizens making legitimate demands of their governments.

But other things occurring in Egypt are not. The country’s political elite is deeply polarized. The secular opposition and its Islamist opponents disdain one another. Any semblance of trust or compromise has disappeared.

In Tahrir Square, some protesters carried signs calling for the Obama administration to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s “fascist regime.” They scoffed at the idea that the Brotherhood would ever allow free elections. They insisted that they were stopping a Brotherhood plot to turn Egypt into a theocratic state that resembled Afghanistan after the Taliban.

Brotherhood supporters, meanwhile, were heartbroken, seeing the coup as a re-assertion of the military rule they have struggled to end for decades. They claimed the opposition had a “personal vendetta” against the Brotherhood. And they called the current struggle “an existential battle” with the military they will not lose.

In a trenchant analysis in The New Republic, Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamist political movements, offers a detailed list of the colossal mistakes Morsi made in office. But he also warns about what happens next. A crackdown on the Brotherhood, Brown suggests, could result in some of its members embracing violence.

“It would be wise for those who are now victorious in Egypt to remember that the issue is not only what the Brotherhood learns,” Brown wrote, “the issue is also what Islamists are taught.”

For the Obama administration, the coup is a minefield — and a second chance. Washington’s influence is enormously limited in Egypt. Thirty years of backing Egyptian military rulers who embraced peace with Israel have left Washington with no credibility.

Many members of the secular opposition are convinced the Obama administration placed the Brotherhood in power. Islamists, however, see an American hand behind the coup that toppled Morsi. As Brown notes, “Egypt’s rumor mill transformed preposterous rumor into established fact with breathtaking speed.”

That is why it is vital for Washington to demand immediate elections and no crackdown on the brotherhood. President Barack Obama’s statement on Wednesday was surprisingly strong in some areas but vague in others.

“I now call on the Egyptian military,” Obama said, “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters.”

He hinted at a cutoff of the $1.5 billion in annual aid the United States provides to Egypt, the vast majority of it military, but did not call the takeover a “coup.” Under American law, all U.S. foreign assistance is cut off to a country if a military coup occurs.

Some analysts called for the United States to turn a blind eye at the coup and continue providing assistance. They argued that American strategic interests – Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the safety of the Suez canal and counter-terrorism efforts – justify support for military rule in Egypt.

That would be an enormous mistake. For decades, the United States has tried that approach in Egypt. Military rule and billions in Camp David Accords aid produced economic stagnation and social unrest. Egypt and the region have changed. Egyptians will not accept authoritarian rule in any form.

The most cogent reaction to the crisis from an American politician came from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). He assailed Morsi, who he said had “squandered an historic opportunity, preferring to govern by fiat rather than work with other political parties.” But Leahy was emphatic about the need for the United States to halt aid.

“Our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” Leahy said. “As the world’s oldest democracy, 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.”

Leahy is right.  Immediate elections and inclusive politics are what Egypt needs. Not military rule.

This post was updated and revised on Thursday, July 4th at 10:30pm.


PHOTO (Top): Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi hold pictures of him as they react after the Egyptian army’s statement was read out on state TV, at the Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah


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Last I checked Iceland was the worlds oldest democracy.

Posted by MikeStover | Report as abusive

History is destined to repeat itself until there is a separation of church and state and until the elected leader does not have to satisfy a higher political or religious body. Recall that things started festering when the MB fielded a presidential candidate after clearly saying they would not. That was the first trust issue, the next came when the constitution was rushed through. In that time Morsi also attempted to place himself above the law which was overturned by the courts. That was the first major conflict between the MB and the courts. Had Morsi encouraged constitutional debate people may have learned how to negotiate and compromise and to accept a less than perfect outcome.

Posted by CapitalJ | Report as abusive

“The secular opposition and its Islamist opponents disdain one another. Any semblance of trust or compromise has disappeared.” Well, duh? The Brotherhood, armed with a belief that society should be Islamized rather than democratized (whether they like it or not) is not a force with which reason or civility is effective.

They and their ideas are so fundamentally opposite to democratic principles and goals that the two are, and shall remain, forever mutually exclusive. The Brotherhood has done the world a great favor in making this clear.

At the time of Mursi’s election ONLY the Muslim Brotherhood was sufficiently organized to conduct a political campaign. There was genuine fear that remnants of those supporting the previous deposed dictator might wind up “in charge”, so no one was.

A disorganized and fragmented “opposition” had no candidate and no platform. The “election” was one in which the Brotherhood ran against no one and nothing, boycotted by many in frustration. Hardly a “mandate”.

Steps progressively implemented by Mursi and his henchmen confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the Brothers meant to so change the state and society that the various causes they represent — moderate Islam, liberalism, socialism, secular nationalism — would never again have a chance of, or even a share in, power. The Brotherhood sought, in its constitution, a special place for Islam and the implementation of sharia law.

They lost sight of the fact that ordinary Egyptians did NOT intend their votes to begin the transformation of Egypt into an Islamic state. A horrified people unwilling to live under such religious restrictions responded desperately by any and all means available to bring this process to a halt. It is little less than a miracle that they succeeded.

The opposition is still only defined by the fact that they preferred reasonable freedoms that the Brotherhood would progressively deny them. There is simply no way they could have ever “come together” to meaningfully oppose or contest the “rule of the Brotherhood without the help of the army.

Fortunately the army has stepped forward to assure the Egyptian people can ALL have meaningful voice to form a genuinely democratic society. The army has pledged to oversee a “level playing field”, one no longer controlled by Islamists. What’s bad about that?

Well done, Egypt! You have earned your second chance. Don’t bungle it!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Elections are of no value at all in a country where the losers assume the right to kill the winners in order to have their way.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Sadly ironic…Americans lecturing on political division…Morsi, a democratically-elected leader, should be removed by the military because his party did not listen to the other side, etc…etc…??? Americans should apply these rules to themselves.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

What a disjointed collection of sentences. The author is so complexed the only thing it seems consistent with is its disdain for Israel and its duplicity for the USA. Initial impression is the author would applaud the Austrian/German punk with a black patch under its nose democratically elected irrespective of what the Germans might think themselves.

Posted by Nigeletto | Report as abusive