During a visit to Islamabad on Aug. 1, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the overthrowing of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi had been aimed at “restoring democracy.”
But Kerry’s definition of democracy is about as democratic as the restoration of democracy in Nicaragua at gunpoint under former President Ronald Reagan. Contrary to the beliefs of Sec. Kerry and President Barack Obama’s administration, the ousting of President Morsi is the farthest thing from democratic, and will have lasting negative effects on the region.
When Morsi was originally elected as president, Foreign Policy wrote that the international community believed that President Morsi’s political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, would use their power in the Egyptian executive and legislative branches to push through a series of fundamentally Islamist reforms that would curtail individual liberties in Egypt. Instead, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be somewhat unprepared to rule, but they never used the military to exert control over the people, as Hosni Mubarak did for decades prior to the Egyptian revolution. Simply being an ineffective leader, as Morsi was, is not a legitimate reason to stage a coup. A lack of efficacy should have resulted in Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being ousted at election time, not at gunpoint. Had Morsi abused the power of the executive branch to nullify the powers of the legislature or judiciary, or ordered the military to fire upon civilians, then a coup would be justified and necessary.
This coup will unfortunately have negative implications for Egypt, even as they are still attempting to recover from their bloody revolution in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood, which survived generations in exile under Mubarak, now realizes that “democracy” won’t work for their aims in Egypt. Instead, military force seems to be the new black. The promise of democracy is now moot; the military has shown that a militaristic state is the future of Egypt. From the perspective of the Brotherhood, there is no point to working within the system if electoral gains will be nullified with military force. In the future, expect less political activism and more violent action in Egypt.
The power of the military will also be felt beyond the borders of Egypt. Kerry made his statements from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, a nation that has experienced a handful of military takeovers since gaining their independence 60 years ago. The most powerful nation on the planet endorsing force over voting rights in one of the historically least democratic nations sends a clear and influential message.
True, some revolutions have led to positive democratic change. The state that emerged from the American Revolution is currently the most powerful in the world. Then again, some revolutions have done more harm to democratic ideals than good, notably the Iranian Revolution, the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, even though these revolutions were originally meant to be by the people and for the people. The problem with revolutions or coups is that they throw a country into a state of anarchy, and the priority of the new rulers of the state is to put the stability of the state first and ideals second. Niccolo Machiavelli makes a case for prioritizing the state before ideals in The Prince, and that book has been a foundational text for statecraft in the 500 years since its publication. As Ian Bremmer writes in his book The J Curve, the quickest way to restore stability after a state slides into anarchy is to create autarchy, although in the long run a democracy will eventually be the most stable form of government. As evidenced by the French and the Bolsheviks, however, even the loftiest of ideals of liberte, egalite e fraternite can give way to chaos.
Sec. Kerry did try to quantify his statements in Islamabad by saying that millions of people wanted a change in leadership in Egypt. Kerry was trying to justify the change in leadership in Egypt because of public outcry. At face value, that seems democratic, popular support from an unjustified mass of people without an election is not democratic. By the same logic, since millions of people also support the Taliban because they provide jobs for rural Afghans and Pakistanis and they don’t have a habit of blowing up village homes with Predator drones and Hellfire missiles, Kerry could make the case that the Taliban should be in charge in southwest Asia. It’s doubtful, however, that the U.S. will ask the Taliban to take over in Kabul anytime soon. There are some Afghan and Pakistani political leaders who have ties to or sympathize with the Taliban, but they have been legitimately and constitutionally appointed or elected and do not make up a majority of the government in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Large numbers of Egyptians wanted Morsi out of power, but they should have waited for the next election cycle in order to set the precedent for a stable democratic process. Keep in mind that former President George W. Bush won in 2000 with fewer votes than then-Vice President Al Gore, yet still got his time in office.
For supporters of Morsi, this ouster cheapens their voice. In removing Morsi from power, the military has sent a message that the voice of the people does not matter if the other side screams loud enough. That’s not the point of a democracy. Democracies only retain legitimacy if the people participate, and fewer Egyptians are likely to participate if they feel their voice can be silenced by the military.
In Egypt, we saw a state emerge from anarchy with the goal of moving toward democracy under Morsi, only to be plunged back into anarchy with the ouster. Not only is the state now more unstable than it was under the ineffective Morsi government, but there is also an increased chance that Egypt could move toward a military dictatorship to restore stability. Egypt is decidedly less well-off at this stage of the game.
The Arab Spring uprisings were supposed to be about the people of the Middle East throwing off the chains of autocratic repression and welcoming democracy. Instead, this return to military rule in Egypt marks an end to democratic hopes in the already volatile region.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations global business. His column runs Mondays.