Friday, July 5, 2013

Coup-ocracy: Why the Ousting of Morsi Isn’t a Good Thing

Over the past few days, I’ve heard a lot of people congratulating Egyptians on toppling their president for the second time in two years. This time, the president was a democratically elected one, selected by over 10 million Egyptians with a respectable voter turnout at 54% in the first phase. At the time, it seemed like the fundamental rights fought for by so many Egyptians were finally materializing, primarily the right to vote for and elect a leader of their choosing. With Mubarak gone, there seemed to be no limit to what a democratic, politically mobilized Egypt could achieve.

Fast-forward two years to 2013, and many Egyptians have discovered that democracy had not brought with it many of the changes they had longed for. The economy remains stagnant (actually, it's now pretty much in a free-fall), lawlessness abounds, and sexual harassment is more pervasive than ever. In a move to force a new constitution through, Pres. Morsi consolidated his executive power, taking sweeping rights away from the judicial branch and giving them to himself. He has been called “the pharaoh” and “worse than Mubarak,” and many feared that he would become just another dictator hiding behind the title of president. Instead of waiting for the presidential elections in 2015, millions of Egyptians took to the streets en masse this week, prompting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to depose and detain Pres. Morsi.

Despite the claims of many that this represents “the power of the people,” the opposite is in fact true. This represents the power of SCAF in Egyptian politics to override the democratic process while maintaining their own privileges. The scenes of millions of Egyptians taking to the streets are no doubt inspiring; I often wish my own compatriots were so politically active when it comes to our government doing abhorrent things. Yet as Allana Van Antwerp pointed out on Foreign Policy online, “the mass protests calling for Morsi's resignation, rather than a unified opposition coalescing around specific policy demands, leads Egypt down a dangerous road.”[1] This “dangerous road” likely means that whenever things get messy in Egypt, presidents will be overthrown and instability will prevail. Democratic institutions cannot take root when the people refuse to play by their rules, and one of the most important rules is that leaders are elected in democratic elections and not kicked out of office simply for failing to live up to their promises or the hopes of their constituents. If that were the case, then no president would ever make it past the first year, let alone the first term.

A protest poster reads "Get Out." Courtesy of AP.

Personally, I didn’t like Pres. George W. Bush. Okay, I actually hated him; the invasion of Iraq was one of the primary reasons I knew I would work in international relations one day. At thirteen, even I could understand why invading a sovereign nation was a profoundly stupid idea, but I didn’t go out and try to oust him from power, nor did the millions of other Americans who disagreed with him. I waited until I was 18, registered to vote, and cast my ballot for the other political party in 2008; simple as that. I am absolutely positive there will be more presidents of America in my lifetime I cannot stand, but I will not be taking to the streets calling for the toppling of the government for any of them because I believe that Americans who disagree with me have just as much of a right to select our leaders as I do. Even if I think they’re idiots.

The Egyptian precedent is dangerous not only because it undermines the democratic process, but it also further enshrines the power, and right, of the armed forces to select and kick out Egypt’s leaders while they run things from the background. Egypt’s “shadow government” is already estimated to control 40 percent or more of its economy. SCAF members own nearly all of its largest companies and utilities, and the group has long handpicked presidents, including the non-democratically elected ones. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was commendable for overthrowing Mubarak, who was nothing but a dictator. It fell short, however, in actually upsetting the status quo, since to do so would have meant toppling SCAF as well.

Unfortunately, the prospects for a more stable democracy in places like Egypt where autocracy has been the norm since independence are not great, and even if democracy materializes it likely will not be for decades. In one of my favorite (if depressing) articles, Bruce E. Moon analyzes the likelihood of democracy developing in post-autocratic societies, specifically post-Saddam Iraq.[2] He found that only two countries (Portugal and Turkey) have achieved what he calls “functional democracy” in a span of 20 years after they deposed their autocratic governments. In the Middle East particularly, not a single autocracy had transitioned to democracy since independence. Worldwide, indicators of democracy in post-autocratic societies only show slight improvement after at least 25 years of engaging in the democratic process. Egypt has a long road ahead of it if it wants to join the ranks of the democratic world, and the most recent coup does not bode well for it traveling down that path.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors outside the presidential palace. Photo by Mahmud Khaled.

If Egyptians want to see true change in their country, they must start by respecting the democratic process they demanded as they ousted Mubarak. The opposition needs to formulate a cohesive front and develop specific policy goals and steps to achieving them rather than protesting leaders they don’t agree with. By putting forward an effective platform for change they can hope to have their own leaders elected, and to do so they must form a unified front rather than the fractured coalition that currently exists. Most importantly, steps must be taken to limit the power of SCAF over politics and economy. Only by freeing themselves from the yoke of the armed forces will the Egyptian people ever be truly free.

Of course, as Moon’s article shows, this process is never going to happen overnight, or even over the span of a presidential term. Egypt has decades of hard work towards democracy ahead of it, and recent events have set it back years. Outsiders can do very little in reality to influence events, but the US should try to steer Egyptians away from continual popular revolutions and towards democratic elections. Our close relationship with SCAF puts us in a good position to influence the group, and we should start by tying military aid to democratic elections and civilian governance. It is going to be a frustratingly long process, and that’s okay because at least the process is happening. The alternative is a military-led Egypt that will never achieve a modicum of stability, nor will it ever see true change in the lives of tens of millions of Egyptians. As Egyptians will soon find out, protests are easy and democracy is hard; yet the hard work will all be worth it if they finally have a government that respects human rights, fosters development, and works for them instead of against them.

As my colleague and friend Colin Wolfgang pointed out, there is a supreme irony in the fact that "while we were celebrating our independence day the military was overthrowing a democratically elected president," one of the only countries other than Iran to do so in the last 50 years. Those celebrating Morsi's overthrow should take note.


Further reading on the dangers of coups to democracy:


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