Saturday, July 27, 2013

Egypt: A 'Coup For Democracy' By The Army?

By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) - The dramatic and controversial military coup in Egypt on July 3 continues to have repercussions well beyond the borders of that ancient land.

One year ago, after a succession of Pharaohs, Kings and Army dictators in its rich five thousand year and more history, this major country in the Arab world elected Muhammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood as President with 52% of the vote in an undisputed democratic process. A year later, the Muslim Brotherhood is out of power with its leader Morsi arrested by the Army, an interim Government put in place and fighting causing many deaths going on in the streets of major Egyptian cities between Morsi supporters and opponents.

How could the Arab Spring turn to winter so abruptly in one year and how can the Army and the Tahrir Square demonstrators accept a military coup so soon after overthrowing Mubarak?

The answers to these questions have relevance for all who believe in democracy, good governance and the rule of law especially for nascent democracies in the Global South. Egypt, lynchpin of the Arab world, is a founder member of the Non-aligned Movement, a leading developing country in the Group of 77 and a flag bearer of so many causes dear to the Global South including the establishment of a Palestinian state.

As importantly is the question whether democratic elections are valid only when parties conforming to conventional norms and secularism participate leaving out extremist parties of the left and right as well as fundamentalist religious groups even when a plurality of the vote elects them. What if the white supremacist British National Party in UK or Marine Le Pen in France were elected to power?

Moral dilemma

Supporters of liberal democracy are all confronted with this moral dilemma as they react to the events in Egypt. Obama for example does not call the events in Egypt a “coup” but appeals for Morsi’s release and an end to harassment of the Brotherhood while the neo-conservatives in the US rejoice over the Army take-over. Is the legitimacy of an elected Government vitiated by large-scale popular demonstrations or should we wait for actual elections?

The Muslim Brotherhood – or “The Society of the Muslim Brothers” – is one of the oldest, largest and most influential Islamic movements in the Arab world established in 1928 by Hassein-al-Barna an Islamic scholar. It has been associated with political violence including assassinations especially during the period of British rule in Egypt. It is regarded as the origin of Hamas and has spread to other Islamic countries. Its popularity diminished after it turned against Nasser whom they first supported when the Army overthrew King Farouk in 1952.

Banned from time to time the Brotherhood transformed itself into a democratic party when democratic political space was created after the ouster of Mubarak in 2011. As a well-organized broad based political force it won 47% of the seats in Parliament as against its Islamist rivals the Salafist Nour Party, which got 24%. At the Presidential Election in 2012 former Professor of Engineering Morsi was their Presidential candidate and the centre voted for him seeing him as a moderate.

A cautionary tale

The rise and fall of Morsi recalls, as a cautionary tale, another tragedy in the Arab world. Two decades ago in Algeria in 1991, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) or the Islamic Salvation Front, despite gerrymandering and other repressive tactics, won 48% of the popular vote and 188 out of 231 seats in Parliament. This alarmed the Army and those who led the heroic revolution against the colonial French regime. The Army cancelled the elections and declared a state of emergency to the applause of the French and the rest of the Western world. A civil war was the result for 12 long years leaving an estimated 200,000 dead and a devastated economy.

Is that the likely result of what we have seen in Egypt especially after the open invitation of the Morsi appointed army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for street demonstrations to give the military a mandate to confront "violence and potential terrorism"?

It is true however that Morsi over-reached himself in his first year in power either out of inexperience or incompetence. The protests against Morsi were huge and could not be said to have been inspired by a minority of dissidents. The Tamarud (Rebel) youth movement was at the vanguard. The economy was mismanaged, inflation and unemployment rose alarmingly and electricity cuts and rising crime rates added to the problems of the people. Morsi did little to broaden his base and the Christian and Shia minorities grew nervous. Appointments were confined to Muslim Brotherhood members and independent institutions were undermined. The decree conferring immunity on himself was the beginning of the end. Ultimately people power, which had ousted the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and elected Morsi, was also the cause of Morsi’s fall.

The transition plan

The Army acted after due warning when the unruly mobs estimated at as much as 14 million continued their demonstrations against Morsi for days with no sign that Morsi was ready to compromise. On July 3 the Army deposed Morsi taking him into custody and a transition plan was announced. Ally Mansour, a non-controversial Supreme Court judge, has been appointed interim President, former IAEA Director-General and Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed el Baradei vice-President and well-known diplomat Nabil Fahmy as Foreign Minister. The transition plan announced has the following elements:

- Ten legal and constitutional experts have 30 days to draft changes

- Panel of 50 people from across Egyptian society consider amendments

- Final draft put to referendum

- Parliamentary elections early 2014, followed by presidential elections.

However none of this has helped to abate the protests and the Muslim Brotherhood continues to reject the interim Government demanding the return of Morsi. Many foreign Governments including the US, which continues its $ 2 billion aid to Egypt, have called for the release of Morsi from custody. Ironically the unpopularity of the Army at the time of the Mubarak ouster has been repaired among those who oppose Morsi. This can only be explained by the need for stability and secularism in an unstable region.

The Saudi have backed the Army and Qatar, which had bankrolled Morsi, quickly pledged support for the new Government. The West, unhappy over the role of the Army ousting an elected Government, grudgingly acquiesced since the Islamist policies of the Brotherhood were the greater evil. Most international commentators were caught in a cleft stick – do they stand for democratically elected governments or their expulsion by the Army with the promise of elections and stability in the future? The West’s fear of militant Islam will finally determine their reaction to Morsi’s ouster.

Turkey's example

A more positive example for all the parties in Egypt to follow is the example of Turkey – now turning a little sour but for different reasons than Army-civilian relations. In Turkey, the Army had acquired iconic stature with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his modernization of the country after the founding of the Republic in 1923. It became the guardian of secularism and frequently intervened to topple elected Governments post World War II. The election of President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in 1997 was viewed warily when it first emerged. The Army warned that the secularism it had established should not be violated. Gradually both sides grew accustomed to each other and mutual accommodation was possible. Over a period the Army’s influence in politics waned while the Islamist policies of Prime Minister Erdogan’s party were also moderated enabling Erdogan to be re-elected three times.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood need to acquire the political skills for this kind of cohabitation. Much now depends on the interim Government and their ability to pave the way for fresh elections when a genuinely representative Government will emerge. The Muslim Brotherhood must also change and settle for a compromise and for reconciliation in the larger interests of the stability and prosperity of Egypt and her people.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is currently President of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize recipient the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 26, 2013]