Whether or not this will be the case in Egypt remains to be seen. The ousting of Islamist president Mohammad Morsi last week by the country’s military after days of continuous mass protests on the streets of Cairo, started out as a relatively bloodless affair, and the military is making all of the right promises from the start — free elections, interim government, denials of any ulterior motives. That being said, all militaries that seize power from democratically elected leaders and governments make the same promises — they are acting in the best interests of the people and the nation — whether or not they plan on handing over power or executing a reign of terror against their political enemies.
The crackdown by the Egyptian military on the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a member, would seem to suggest the latter. Mass arrests of more than 200 Brotherhood officials were underway within hours of Morsi being taken into custody by the military, representing a stunning defeat for the Islamist organization that has dominated Egyptian politics since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Taking over from Morsi is Adly Mansour, although real power would seem to rest in the hands of the military for the time being, with Mansour serving as a civilian figurehead for the public. Announcing the military had “corrected the path of the glorious revolution” among other rhetoric, Mansour exalted in the actions of the people in preventing the creation of more “tyrants”.
Time will tell if this is all just a sad epitaph for fledgling democracy in Egypt, which saw the destruction of the old authoritarian regime in 2011 with the departure of Mubarak and a transition to elected government. Whatever his politics, Mohammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) were the democratically-elected government of Egypt. And whatever their reasons for taking action, the Egyptian military have removed that government in favour of something else that is — at least for the time being — a far cry from being democratically elected.
It is worth noting Morsi was the country’s first democratically-elected leader. To be swept from power by the military, which could be legitimately accused of simply taking sides in a struggle between oppositionists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a dismal verdict for a youthful fervour for democracy that spawned the toppling of the old guard in 2011.
Young democracies can have profoundly shaky starts — especially in Africa. Regimes left behind by sagging empires in the latter half of the 20th century fell like dominoes to be replaced by brutal dictators and military juntas, before democracy was able to take firm root in countries that yesterday read as a who’s who of tyranny the world over. In countries with populations used to the efficiency of the decision-making process in a dictatorship, the sometimes frustratingly slow-moving process of democratic government can often be a test in itself for citizens that wish to see wholesale change in a matter of months.
For most of us, we tend to agree that democracy is a best-case scenario approach to an imperfect world, with advantages that tend to outstrip the alternatives. We know that it is often far from perfect, and doesn’t always function the way it is supposed to.
For nations that have never had democracy, like Egypt, the idea of democracy is usually high on a pedestal far above the reality for the common man who starves or bleeds in the street. It would be easy to become frustrated with a system that during the heady days of revolution seemed to be a powerful prescription for all of the ailments of society, instead of just an imperfect system of governance with one crucial advantage over all others — freedom of choice. Democracy is not a solution, it’s simply a system. It is the people that must embrace it themselves and make the change they desire. That is the true essence — and beauty — of democracy.
Sadly, it is a truth often lost on many of our own citizens, who tend to forget that our political apathy is the very disease that breeds corruption and vice in government. When we don’t care any longer, it becomes easier for those in power to obfuscate unethical actions. An engaged electorate is a far more effective watchdog than any judiciary, or a whole army of auditors, will ever be.
Accountability in the political sense is taking on a measure of personal responsibility for the actions of government. And when those actions fall short of the mark, we hold them accountable at the ballot box.
In Egypt last week, everyone except Morsi’s supporters were afraid to describe what had occurred with the dreaded “c” word. Still, when it walks like and talks like it, you call it for what it is — a coup against the elected government. Like a page out of revolutionary history, there is something almost proto-Marxist about occupying key centres of communication, rolling the tanks and troops out and making mass arrests of opposition members. And a little revolution from time to time can be a healthy thing. But a little too much revolution tends to breed excess.
And excess might be the key term. If the military refuses to hand over power to civilian authorities or sponsor new elections, excess is just what Egyptians will have. Again, there are ominous consequences to toppling democratically-elected governments. Although the military is promising new elections, there has not been an explanation for what might occur if the Muslim Brotherhood won them for a second time — that is, if the military even allowed the party to run. An unfortunate precedent has now been set. It is not hard make the inference that any party that wins an upcoming election will only be taking office after getting a stamp of approval from the military.
And that is hardly reassuring for the people of Egypt if they are subjected to a shadow military regime that allows civilians to run the country only when they don’t run afoul of the military.
For outside observers throughout the Muslim world, last week’s coup in Egypt has another ominous message. If a democratically-elected Islamist government is swept from power in favour of a military regime mere months after being elected, what does this say about the prospect for Islamist democracy in other nations in the Middle East that are still controlled by authoritarian regimes?