The Egyptian Paradox: Saving Democracy and Setting It Back

The first freely elected government of a country, where a large fraction of society is disenfranchised, disempowered and made to feel like second-class citizens, is ousted, in the name of saving democracy, by a military coup supported by former elites and “liberals”.

And the outcome? Three more military coups and more than 50 years later, a deep chasm in society that is still preventing the emergence of truly inclusive politics.

No, we are not talking about the future of Egypt (not directly in any case).

This is just a description of what happened in Turkey in 1960 as we described previously.

In Turkey, the first transition to a true multi-party democracy took place in 1946 with the founding of the Democratic Party (DP or Demokrat Parti). This was after two experiments with controlled multi-party democracy, where even window-dressing opposition parties formed by confidants of the regime attracted so much support that they had to be closed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the autocratic ruler of the country.

In 1950, to the great disappointment and apprehension of military and state elites, the DP came to power with a landslide election victory, bringing voice for the first time to millions of Turks effectively disenfranchised until then. Inevitably, this involved a populist and Islam-tinged rhetoric.

But DP elites themselves were no angels (is anybody surprised?). Once they saw their popularity slide, they just adopted part of the playbook of their rivals’ wholesale and augmented their huge corruption with repression and a thorough clampdown on the media.

On May 27, 1960, the military engineered a coup, widely supported by the bureaucracy, the intellectual elites, and the supposedly pro-democracy Turkish “liberals”. After all, wasn’t the military just saving democracy from the DP and its populist leader, Adnan Menderes?

The military swiftly moved to hang three of the leaders of the DP, including Prime Minister Menderes.

Emboldened, the military would intervene three more times in Turkish politics in the next 40 years. The roots of the current problems in Turkey partly lie in the polarization that was much deepened by this coup that wrested power from the hands of those who had been made to feel disempowered for so long the first time they held it.

What would have happened without the military coup? Nobody knows. Perhaps

Menderes and other DP elites would irreparably damage the economy or somehow cow into a total submission before the next election to effectively set up their own dictatorship.

Possible. But unlikely. Rather, they would have probably been kicked out of power in the next election, cementing Turkish democracy’s credentials.

Same thing with the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Sure, the Brotherhood in power had none of the conciliatory, compromise-seeking veneer that it projected before the election, attracting votes from liberals and leftists unwilling to support the candidate of the military and the old regime. Sure, Morsi was turning authoritarian, attempting to bring his people into positions of power within the state bureaucracy (as the military and Mubarak had done previously). Sure, the economy was ailing (though not just because of the Brotherhood’s mismanagement but also because of the natural instability that accompanies such huge social transformations).

What would have happened without the military coup that took place on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, ignominiously kicking Morsi out of power and into military custody?

Again, we don’t know. It is possible that the economy would have been so deeply damaged that even greater and more violent protests would have erupted. More ominously, the Muslim Brotherhood may have taken over the arteries of power so thoroughly that they would be able to set up their own dictatorship, effectively blocking any path that may have temporarily opened to more inclusive political institutions in Egypt.

All possible, but we also would say that these are perhaps risks preferable to bringing back the army with the support of the so-called Egyptian liberals now cheering an effective return to a military-controlled society. In fact, the Rebel movement, which collected over 20 million signatures to call for early presidential elections, suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood could have easily been defeated at the polls, if only its opponents could bide their time.

Just like in Turkey, what Egypt needed was those ascended to power for the first time to peacefully lose an election — not because the other side cannot tolerate the very thought of those that have so far viewed as second-class sitting in the presidential palace but because they just messed up and weren’t governing well. Because they just lost the support of the ordinary people and had to leave the way they came, through the polls.

Just like in Turkey, Egypt needed assurances to both sides that inclusive politics in which every segment of society, regardless of creed, religion, gender and social status, can share power.

Instead, we have in our hands a military coup that confirms the worst fears of a very large fraction of the population — that the so-called liberal elites and the military that have ruled the country for so long will do anything not to share power with them (never mind that Mubarak and his cronies, together with the military, had also effectively sidelined the young and the liberals who have now turned into allies of the soldiers).

How will this segment of society ever trust democratic politics? How can we expect them not to work to undermine their opponents completely the moment they wrestle power nationally or locally? How can we now hope to end the Egyptian iron law of oligarchy?

It looks like, as in Turkey, the path to true democracy in Egypt will be long, arduous and littered with missed opportunities.

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