One year ago, the Muslim Brotherhood gained political power in Egypt’s fledgling representative government under the leadership of Mohammed Morsi as president. One year later, the people of Egypt have had enough. Some fifty-three million Egyptians took to the streets across the country and, with the help of the military, ousted their Islamist government – their Islamist government backed by the United States and European powers.
If the Arab Spring surprised Western political analysts, then this reboot of Egypt’s revolution baffled them. Morsi was “democratically elected” through “free and fair elections” – is this not what the Egyptian people wanted?
To answer, one need only look numbers: approximately thirteen million Egyptians gave Morsi their votes in the 2012 elections, while CNN estimates there are now fifty-three million Egyptians in the streets against him. The disparity speaks for itself.
The history of Egypt is unique compared to its more theocratic neighbors in the region. It has a long history of close and volatile interaction with Western values and education through colonialism and the bipolarity of Cold War global politics. It is in many ways the central battleground of religious politics in the Middle East, with extremes of leftist secularism and political Islam waging a struggle for generations.
Somewhere in the midst of this is the Egyptian military, largely secluded from the country’s domestic politics, but ultimately proven willing to step in at decisive moments in ways that shape not only the path of Egypt, but of the region as a whole. Egypt’s is a history that is far from perfect – having a single-party, fascist state under Nasser, hostility towards Israel until the Camp David Accords under Sadat, and a long legacy of corrupt autocracy under Mubarak– but it remains a country that is seen as crucial to the ambitions and ideals for the region across the entire political spectrum, from the liberal and secular West to the most devout Islamic totalitarians.
The history of the Egyptian military is perhaps the most intriguing and distinctive facet of the country’s political landscape. On the one hand, it has a history of stepping in during political turmoil and returning to the barracks once the turmoil has passed. On the other, it remains wholly unaligned to any recognizable principles, pragmatically following populist sentiments in order to maintain its own status.
To determine the ethical status of the military’s move to instigate a “democratic coup,” one must first determine the status of the sentiments behind the protests themselves – no easy task, considering those protesting range from republican secularists to those seeking an even more Islamist government than the Muslim Brotherhood was instituting.
But first, it is of utmost importance to understand the circumstances under which Mohammed Morsi attained power. The 2012 Egyptian presidential elections were only the second in Egypt’s history to offer more than one candidate (the first being 2005 where Mubarak soundly defeated his sacrificial lamb of an opponent). In Mubarak’s power vacuum, only one political group was organized and developed enough to mount a successful presidential bid – the Muslim Brotherhood. Other candidates ran as independents or in considerably weaker, unorganized political parties.
After the initial elections, Morsi attained a narrow victory over a Mubarak-era official, becoming president of a tumultuous, uncertain Egypt whose people knew what they were rejecting, but who had achieved no consensus over what alternatives were preferred. In such an environment, superior party organization was, for the moment, the most decisive variable, and the Muslim Brotherhood had been waiting in the wings, steadfastly organizing and preparing for over eighty years.
Upon election, Morsi proceeded with predictable Islamist political tactics – arresting and intimidating political opposition, consolidating power, and abridging the individual rights of the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration continued providing aid to the same government, despite the efforts of a few Senators to halt the aid in January. As a result, opposition groups took to the streets on the anniversary of Morsi’s election on June 30, demanding his resignation. The protests expanded throughout the nation, producing vastly larger numbers than seen during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Muslim Brotherhood buildings were torched and ransacked in the process. Signs denouncing President Obama and his support of Morsi could be seen amidst the protesters, and a number of high-ranking officials within Morsi’s government stepped down over the following days.
On Monday, July 1, the Egyptian military issued an ultimatum to Morsi’s government – meet the demands of the protestors within forty-eight hours, or face military intervention. The demands were not met, and on July 3, the Egyptian military declared that Morsi’s government was no longer in power, that the legislature and the constitution was suspended, and that a senior judge of Egypt’s constitutional court was now acting executive.
Needless to say, the outrage expressed by the protestors is directed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its oppressive policies. That alone is a more promising sign than has been seen throughout the rest of the Middle East – the first elected Islamist chief executive has been rejected no more than one year into his rule. For that, the Egyptian people should be commended.
The situation, though euphoric, is nevertheless tenuous. There is no guarantee that the new constitution will prevent an Islamist government – the genius in our own Founders’ decision to separate church and state has not easily spread to a region still dampened with Dark Age religiosity. If the Egyptian people manage to pull off such feat, all the more commendation is due to them.
The general tenor of the protests suggests that is the direction the Egyptian people are heading, perhaps not so explicitly, but at least implicitly – rejecting Islamic government for western-styled democracies and republics. The Salafists siding with the protesters appear to be sufficiently outnumbered by the secularists, and I hope for our own sake that I am correct in that estimation, lest our own poor decision to stand behind one Islamist now causes us to suffer a worse one. In any case, the repressive policies of Morsi are not well-received by the Egyptian people. I doubt sincerely that they will desire the more consistent, Salafist version of the same policies. Of course, that is mere speculation, but I believe it is well-founded given the events leading up to the protests and the messages of the protesters themselves.
Even so, the American people should not hope for an American-style republic to arise in Egypt. The available alternatives to Morsi are largely leftist, socialist groups, modeled after the European left following the Second World War. Rather than socialism from top-down autocracy, these groups argue for democratic socialism – socialism through electoral suicide. At this point, it is not entirely clear whether the protesters’ condemnations of “fascism” and “terrorism” will translate into a governmental structure prohibiting both, or whether the modern intellectuals’ misuse and overuse of the word “fascism” has prevented them from understanding it fully, and thus from doing all that is necessary to prevent violations of economic liberties and civil liberties alike.
Despite these unknowns, the July 3 coup appears to be an initial step in the right direction – a move away from Islamism in a region in desperate need of secular governance. Whether Egypt’s new government will follow the pattern of improvement exemplified by our Founding Fathers, casting aside the poor, wartime government under the Articles of Confederation for the permanent Union under the Constitution, or whether it mimics Europe’s disdain for economic liberties to its own detriment, is a small matter to US foreign policy interests. The rejection of Islamism – if indeed it will be rejected – is a welcomed sight.
One can only hope that the inept foreign policy of the Obama Administration in supporting Morsi’s Islamist government has not dealt irreparable harm to relations between the American and Egyptian people. Where there is potential for a new secular ally with a relative respect for individual rights and western values in a volatile region rife with theocracy and totalitarianism, we cannot afford to squander the good will of those peoples by siding with their oppressors. That is the foreign policy of a nihilist, and it is a foreign policy we must unequivocally reject.