Morsi, Morsi Me

Sorry. I’ll show myself out.

I love Egypt. For one thing, when I go on vacation I like to go on vacation to a place where I can spend hours in a good museum or wandering around in old buildings and historical sites. My wife would rather sit on a beach and relax all day, which drives me nuts, so vacations are a bit of a negotiation for us. Anyway, Egypt is my kind of destination. Cairo Museum isn’t good, in fact it’s kind of terrible, but it’s packed to the gills with fascinating stuff, and as far as I’m concerned there’s no place with more interesting historical sites to wander about than Egypt, from Alexandria to Giza to Old Cairo to Luxor to the places where they send armed soldiers with the tourist caravans because they’re not so safe.

Also? I like Egyptians. I mean, I’m sure Egypt has its share of jerks just like any other country, but I haven’t met any. The kind of person who can negotiate the traffic in downtown Cairo:

What looks like a total mess to the untrained observer is, in fact, a total mess, but they figure it out somehow.
What looks like a total mess to the untrained observer is, in fact, a total mess, but they figure it out somehow.

is alright by me. The other thing that gets me about Egyptians is their ambiguous appreciation for their national history. Most of the Egyptians I’ve met will downplay the achievements and monuments of the Pharaonic period, because nothing before the arrival of Islam is supposed to matter. But suggest that Egyptians are no different from Arabs anywhere else and you’ll immediately and angrily hear about Egypt’s glorious pyramids and her great past, and what have these other Arabs ever done that’s so great, hmm?

The other thing I would hear from people I met in Egypt was how much they hated Hosni Mubarak. He governed as a dictator, he punished dissent, he was in the pocket of the Americans and the Israelis, and he was a real prick about it. Cab drivers would make sardonic jokes about Mubarak’s presidential entourage blocking the streets when traffic was especially bad (although I could never tell the difference between “especially bad” and “regular bad,” to be honest). Most of all they began to hate him starting around 2000, when it began to seem like he was grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him. Egypt gave up dynastic governance in 1952, and they had no interest in going back. So when the “Arab Spring” came to Egypt in 2011, I was happy to see the people overcome Mubarak’s institutional hold on power and convince the military, Egypt’s real ruling apparatus since that 1952 coup, to dump Hosni and make what looked like some real steps down the road toward genuine civilian government.

Then the elections came.

There’s a funny expectation on the part of many westerners and some of the western-trained Middle Eastern elites sill left over from colonial times that elections equal secularism, full stop. I don’t get why this is, or rather I don’t get why it is outside of our inability to conceive of a political system other than western liberal secular democracy with its emphasis on individual rights over the well-being of the community (or maybe we don’t see the trade-off, I don’t know). Hey, that system more or less works for us and has worked for a while now, so naturally we assume it’s the “best” system–hell, it may even be the “best” system, if such a thing exists. But we expect that other societies, other cultures, are going to share our values and naturally adopt our way of doing things; if a country adopts democratic governance, we figure, they’ll immediately start voting for safe, middle-of-the-road technocrats who might disagree on policy but won’t rock the boat too hard.

The thing is, this tends not to happen in the Middle East and North Africa. That’s not a knock on the region or its people; if you get the vote, you damn well ought to be able to vote for whoever you like, right? That’s what democracy is all about! But in Middle Eastern/North African nations that have adopted democratic reforms, there is a clear tendency to support parties that are more religious in nature. That tendency is often resisted by powerful secular elements of society: witness Algeria circa 1991, where even the hint of a rise in popularity by the “Islamist” (I hate that term) Islamic Salvation Front was enough to make the Algerian military dissolve the government and plunge the country into an 11 year long civil war. Turkey, which avoided colonization but adopted western secularism whole-cloth after World War I, has undergone military coup after military coup after military coup after (probably) military coup after military coup, at least two of them to prevent fundamentalist political elements from gaining support or power. After the Turkish military finally, in the wake of the 1997 coup and with a mind toward Turkey maybe getting into the EU (which tends not to admit countries whose militaries bump off the civilian government once a decade or so), decided to step back from its active political role, the people elected Tayyip Erdoğan’s openly “Islamist” (argh) Justice and Development Party to massive parliamentary victories in 2002. After America repeatedly hounded Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians about holding elections for the “government” of a “nation” we never had any intention of recognizing anyway, the Palestinian people elected Hamas to parliamentary majorities in 2006 over the relatively less religious Fatah/PLO faction, and the western powers immediately levied sanctions against the Palestinians, so as to teach folks in the Middle East that when we say “you guys should hold elections” we mean “you guys should elect who we want you to elect.”

For what it’s worth, I would contend that what the Bush administration did to the Palestinians, insisting on elections and then slapping them with sanctions for voting the wrong way, was one of the most short-sighted, vindictive, petty, moronic things they managed to do in their unfortunate eight years that didn’t involve Iraq. But I digress.

Why is there a pattern of popular support for religious parties in the Middle East? I certainly don’t think it’s as simple as “Islam,” although that plays a role. But consider that these religious parties are often descended from groups that sustained the bulk of the resistance to western colonialism, or to increasingly unpopular western-backed or western-inspired dictators or dominant technocratic parties. When the political landscape is suddenly thrown open to all comers, these parties are not only able to capitalize on the goodwill they’ve earned from their years leading the popular resistance to unpopular institutions, but they’re also the only other game in town as far as an organized opposition party. Everybody else is starting from scratch, but these fundamentalist groups already have the organization, the presence in the communities, and the name-recognition to compete electorally.

Now consider Egypt. In her first freely democratic presidential election in her millenia of existence, the people turned to the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood(‘s Freedom and Justice Party), Mohamed Morsi, over Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a candidate fundamentally weighed down with all the baggage that came from serving (even though it was only for a month) in the government of the hated Mubarak. Look at the electoral map on the Wikipedia page I linked to; it looks like an American presidential election on a smaller-scale–urban and coastal areas going for the “liberal” technocrat, everyplace else going for the religious conservative. Things seemed OK for a while, although the economy kept getting worse and Morsi seemed to have no plan to improve it, but he did try to clip the military’s wings, which seemed to bode well for the country’s future political stability. But then, as is the risk when you elect a theocratically-minded party to power, Morsi started governing more like a theocrat than a democrat. In July of last year he overruled Egypt’s top court, which had dissolved parliament ostensibly because the election that had seated it was marred with haphazard procedure but probably because the MB won the majority, and reinstated the parliament, creating a constitutional crisis and making him look like an autocrat with no respect for judicial authority. In November he issued a declaration making his presidential decrees immune from legal challenge until the adoption of a new constitution, then held a referendum on a new constitution that managed to alienate every political party other than the MB, in addition to reducing or eliminating protections for women and religious minorities. And he started arresting TV comedians for insulting him, not the kind of thing democratic leaders usually do. The economy kept getting worse too, and I keep mentioning that because Qatar, an Arab state with drastically fewer outlets for self-governance than MB-led Egypt, hasn’t had a peep of discontent throughout the Arab Spring and its aftermath, because it’s wealthy enough to dump massive amounts of money directly onto its citizenry, who thus have no real incentive to complain about political restrictions. On some level it always is the economy, stupid.

Everybody knows the rest of the story by now: the Egyptian people protested Morsi’s incompetence and creeping authoritarianism in massive numbers, the military decided to get involved in national politics again, and now Morsi is out of power and under arrest, along with several other key leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood on the charge of being key leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Observers are taking sides, from elation over Morsi’s ouster, to despair over the fact that it was a military coup that removed him, to the understandable but cognitively dissonant “OK, military, we support your undemocratic coup against an elected leader, but you better not get any other undemocratic ideas!” I’m more on the “despair” side, but without the implicit support of Morsi as an elected president; instead, I’d like to propose that there are no good guys here, and certainly no winners.

First of all, there is no democratic process that involves the toppling of an elected leader by a military coup, and that’s exactly what this was no matter how much America might want to pretend otherwise in order to avoid having to cut our foreign aid to Egypt. When armies oust elected leaders, suspend constitutions, shut down TV stations, and round up members of the deposed political party, that’s a “coup.” Maybe it’s a coup in support of a popular desire to see the government tossed out, but it’s still a coup. You can’t build a stable democracy in a country whose military exists outside civilian control and feels compelled to intervene in civilian politics whenever the government reaches a point where the army, or a sizable portion (maybe even a majority) of the population, wants to see it removed from power. Democracies have their own mechanisms for removing failed or unpopular governments, called “elections,” and it’s kind of important to the health of the democracy that their results be honored, all the time. Egyptians had every right to expect that they were done with military rule when Mubarak was ousted; now, either the military is right back in power, or worse, it turns out that it was never really out of power, despite appearances to the contrary.

It is almost unfathomable to me that a country that just celebrated what it thought was an end to military (or military-approved) governance is now celebrating the same military ousting an elected president and suspending its constitution. But, truth be told, Morsi and the MB did this to themselves. Rule by decree is not democratic, and neither is functioning in a way that ignores or rejects the input of all other political parties. When the non-MB political parties all decided to boycott the constitutional referendum, even though all those parties combined represented an outright parliamentary minority, the MB should have put on the breaks and welcomed dialogue. That’s how democracies work. But the MB, instead, forced through the referendum and generally governed in a way that gave the public no real sense that they were interested in abiding by a democratic process, or that they would allow themselves to be removed from power if the people were inclined to vote them out. Maybe the tight organizational structure and discipline that served the MB so well as an opposition movement (particularly one that frequently had to operate underground as they did) doomed them to failure as the leading political party in a pluralist system (as Nathan Brown suggests). The Egyptian people don’t escape some blame here as well, because they’re the ones who elected these guys in the first place. Admittedly, they elected the MB with the understanding that they would play by the rules and stay within the system, but it couldn’t have been hard to envision a conservative religious party like the MB moving in the direction of theocracy once in power, could it? Now, as many/most of the Egyptians are celebrating the MB’s ouster, the party’s membership is being driven back underground and out of the political system. The example of Northern Ireland should be enough to demonstrate that extremist movements should be brought into the political process to neuter them, not excluded from it so as to radicalize them. If the MB has no recourse in politics anymore, then they’re going to take their cause down other avenues, and those won’t be nearly so benign as a political campaign.


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