The removal from power of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s duly elected president will never change one irrefutable truth: If you applaud or support military coups in democracies—even young, wrongheaded democracies—you aid in the making of a very messy world.
Only a year after Morsi was elected to replace the disgraced Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s leader, it was plain even to some senior officials in the governing Islamic Brotherhood that mistakes had serious been made and that Egypt’s laudable democratic experiment needed more institutional substance and several new priorities. It needed maturity by way of experience. And what post-revolutionary government would not?
Surely the best way to reach institutional strength and sophisticated political and economic policies is not by way of a violent coup, one that wipes the slate of all that has been achieved in the post–Mubarak period. Nor is it by toppling an elected leader and replacing his government with one chosen by the army.
Egypt, truly, has returned to square one in the past few days. Over the weekend we saw the army censoring Egyptian broadcasters and harassing overseas correspondents, just as they did during Mubarak’s final days; we have soldiers firing live bullets into crowds and claiming new fatalities, just as they did a year ago. The corker for this columnist was the news that the army was thinking of naming Mohamed ElBaradei as the interim prime minister. At this writing, that appointment hangs in the balance along with others.
I like ElBaradei. He was a top-flight technocrat at the International Atomic Energy Agency before returning to Cairo as Mubarak went down. In particular, he took a balanced approach to Iran’s nuclear program, staying the hand of Tehran’s adversaries and insisting on policies and rulings based on evidence, not politics or ideology. He deserved the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for his performance in Vienna.
But ElBaradei as prime minister? It will be a step back, not forward. He has no following, no ties with ordinary Egyptians. ElBaradei is known as a liberal in the American use of this term. This guy thinks that shutting down broadcasters and making political arrests is fine. Can you imagine his relationship with the army were he to be appointed (by the army)? Yikes, as they say.
ElBaradei is symbolic of those who most vigorously opposed the Morsi government: They are the educated elite, the secularists, and they are sometimes Christian. It is fantasy to assume this segment of Egyptian society would give the nation a liberal democracy. Anyone who doubts this assertion can read about Anwar El Sadat’s 11 years in power and then Mubarak’s 20. An Egypt run by another generation of Western-friendly elitists would produce a variant of the same.
I have neither read of nor spoken to anyone who thinks Morsi had a good first (and last, as it turns out) year in office. His biggest mistakes are well known. He excluded the secularists, notably by using appointments to push the Muslim Brotherhood too far into government. Late last year he issued a radically miscalculated decree awarding the presidential palace extra-judicial powers. The object was to blunt the obstructionist influence of Mubarak-era judges.
Are these coup-worthy errors, meaning beyond correction? The case is weak. Morsi’s mistakes arose from the inexperience all Egyptians who have never known democracy suffer from. The Brotherhood was long at odds with the dictatorships and remains uncomfortable with the army. The “we–they” that is now so evident between secularists and Islamists has been a staple of the political culture for decades.
Before Morsi’s removal from office last week, Egypt had two pressing priorities. In order, they were to get a dreadfully corroded economy restarted, right down to putting food on tables and making light bulbs glow, and to complete the democratic political process—full election cycles, a constitution, an effective legislature and judiciary.
These remain Egypt’s priorities. The only difference between now and last Wednesday, when Morsi got the shove, is that the army—and it is strongly suggested the army had Washington’s encouragement—has forced Egypt to abandon what can justifiably be called modest progress on the path to democracy.
No, Morsi did not hand Egyptians the full-out democracy they want. It would have been foolish to expect any such thing. His administration has to be seen as an interim step, no more but no less. He at least had the virtue of being elected by a majority. Elections do not make a democracy. They most certainly represent a step toward one. All of Morsi’s mistakes do not amount to the big failure in Egypt. The big failure lies in Morsi’s removal.