I support enthusiastically the will of the Egyptian people, because in my book any citizenry that once worshipped cats and more recently removed two autocratic military and theocratic-thugocratic regimes is a citizenry defined by wisdom and sensibility. But we still do not know really what is the will of the Egyptian people, who are deeply divided, and lack the institutions of governance that would allow for an orderly affirmation of majority and minority views.
Wasting time now on whether the armed forces’ removal of elected President Mohammad Morsi was or wasn’t a ‘coup’ is a fascinating but useless exercise. We should focus on the more decisive operative principles of power, governance and order—and the everyday sentiments of 85 million Egyptians who will ultimately decide this contest—that I would define as the issues of legitimacy, participation, and accountability.
The Egyptian democratic transition that was set in motion in January 2011 failed to unfold smoothly and reach a stable condition of a re-legitimized democratic and pluralistic governance system that defined and affirmed those three phenomena. It allowed the Muslim Brotherhood forces to dominate and then monopolize the power structure. They abused their thin mandate crudely, and sparked a massive counter-revolution against them, leading to this week’s removal of President Morsi by a combination of massive street protests and an emphatic armed forces intervention, keeping us ignorant of the true will of the majority in Egypt.
Such missteps in the early years of national sovereignty are pretty common, and should not be exaggerated by Orientalist crackpots around the world who look at the Arabs today and wonder if we are able to democratize. The United States itself—that beacon of democracy that at its initiation only recognized the rights of white men who owned land, and many of whom owned slaves—started life with its Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union from 1776 to 1789, which were a failure and had to be replaced by the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Every democracy gets a second chance to get it right. Often—as we learn from Americans who do not tire these days from teaching us about democracy—the era between the first and second chances includes a civil war, genocide against indigenous peoples, institutionalized racism against blacks, and formal disenfranchisement of women, before a stable democracy emerges decades, or two centuries, later.
So with a humble nod to history, how should we assess the Egyptian armed forces coup that removed elected President Morsi from power? It raises the same political/ethical dilemma as the majority support in the United States for the invasion of Iraq in 2003: How do we judge or react to a situation where a majority of the population supports a criminal act? Is the crime still a crime when the majority approves it, or does majority support transform the crime into a stirring democratic affirmation?
The three principal actors in the Egyptian political arena today—the armed forces, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its many supporters, and the citizens who took to the streets in their millions to oppose Morsi and the MB—will now engage in phase two of Egypt’s sloppy transition from a military-led autocracy to a military-guided transition to a full-fledged, civilian-based democracy. I suspect everyone has learned critical lessons during the past 30 months. All of the key actors today are very different from who they were in January 2011.
The citizenry is re-energized with the knowledge that its peaceful expression of its discontents on the streets continues to have force and bring about historic changes. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are humbled by the realization that their divine confidence is not enough to perpetuate their incumbency, but rather they have to govern well and act pluralistically to stay in power. The armed forces is also held in check to a large extent by the power of the populist legitimacy that was unleashed in the streets in January 2011 and again in June 2013. The armed forces needed to include religious and civilian figures on stage Thursday when they removed Morsi from office, but they felt no such need for non-military Egyptians to stand with them when they assumed power 30 months ago.
Most significantly, in my view, the youth-led Tamarrud movement that organized and mobilized for the June 30 demonstrations that ultimately triggered the end of Morsi’s presidency has learned important lessons about how to engage politically—lessons that will be crucial for when Egyptians must engage constitutionally and electorally in the months ahead.
It is a mistake to judge the Egyptian military or any other of the key actors according to the rules of 1952 or 2009 or even January 2011. In Egypt, 2013 is close to the equivalent of 1789 in the United States, with new understandings of political efficacy, new appreciations for real populist constraints, and new sophistication in putting the two together to achieve the revolutionary promise of previous years.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global