Egypt's Coup-Friendly Liberal Democrats

Egypt's Coup-Friendly Liberal Democrats

To think of Egypt's army as the midwife of democracy is laughable.


More than a few of Egypt’s democrats have hailed the country’s military brass for enabling a popular revolution, carrying out the people’s will, and deposing an authoritarian leader. This has created an awkward situation for American democracy promoters, who are put in the position of supporting their liberal allies while sometimes denying that what occurred was in fact a military coup.

On July 16, the New York Times ran a story entitled “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent,” by reporter David Kirkpatrick. It was about the ease, indeed the gusto, with which self-proclaimed liberals, and even democratic activists, in Egypt have cheered the coup—let’s call it what it is even though the White House has engaged in yogic contortions to avoid doing so—that toppled Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. While it may not have been Kirkpatrick’s intent, the piece had a tsk-tsk edge in describing how easily Egypt’s democrats have forsaken the values that they profess.


Some Egyptian liberals have had a change of heart, or are starting to, as the army high command proceeded to detain an elected president without charge, shut down the Muslim Brotherhood’s media outlets, and arrest its top leaders—to say nothing of shooting unarmed protesters dead. But these dissenters have been trashed by their compatriots as Islamist sympathizers or apologists for the Brotherhood.

It has been dismaying, for instance, to witness Mohammed ElBaradei, the apparent favorite of Western governments, rationalize the military’s sacking of an elected head of state. But, then again, perhaps this wasn’t hard for a man who, even well before the coup, had by his own admission been discussing Morsi’s removal with foreign governments, including our own. (Imagine the reaction here if a leading American opposition politician were to do that.)

Yes, the Times’ reporter revealed the curious role of Egyptian liberals. But his analysis implies a contrast between liberals there and liberals here, when the reality is that there has been no shortage of American liberals and self-professed progressives willing to welcome the coup in Egypt.

The difference between the attitude of many American liberal democrats and their kindred spirits in Egypt is in fact minimal. The former have been no less willing to proclaim that those who have called Morsi’s ouster a coup are naïve about the true nature of the Brotherhood and to depict Morsi’s removal as legitimate and necessary. This despite the uncertainty that’s still warranted about whether the coup has made Egypt more stable.

The defenses offered by American democrats who support the Egyptian generals are versatile. There’s the Morsi-was-a-bad-ruler version. Yes, Morsi was a polarizing personality and an ineffectual administrator (not that he inherited a sound economy). He was also politically tone-deaf on more than one occasion and did little to reassure already skittish non-Muslims. Yet the man did win an election that was fairer than any Egypt has ever had, one that no credible source has claimed was rigged to guarantee his victory.

Surely this is not a technicality. Surely we would not think it acceptable for the U.S. military to depose a president who proved to be widely disliked and horrible at handling the economy.

It’s interesting that the power and gasoline shortages, which accounted for some of the anger Egyptians directed at Morsi, suddenly appear to be easing under the army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour. He appears to be quite the economic administrator. (Perhaps the Eurozone could use his expertise.)

Another argument heard on our shores from those prettifying the coup is that millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi and that just as many signed a petition demanding that he quit. But can democracy take root, especially in a country with no history of it, if the men on horseback can come riding in and expel, and hold in detention, an elected president just because big street demonstrations and a massive signature campaign are underway? Aren’t those the sorts of challenges that democracies are supposed to resolve, and face frequently?

Those street-level events were impressive expressions of people’s power, but they cannot be equated with a constitutional mechanism for removing a president, let alone a justification for a coup. Some commentators in this country have rightly noted the flaws of the Egyptian constitution. But it seems strange to trade in legal niceties and to then defend the extralegal process that led to Morsi’s dismissal.

Yet another common rationalization for the coup is that Morsi was not an inclusive leader and failed to “reach out” to his opponents. Lots of American politicians have offered up this gem—and with a straight face, despite the partisanship and gridlock paralyzing Washington. As a friend of mine observed about such advice: “How many of our leaders do that?”

Besides, once General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who had been meeting with opposition figures seeking to topple Morsi while serving as defense minister in Morsi’s cabinet (again, consider how we would react were an U.S. secretary of defense to do that), responded to the street protests by intimating that the military might take action, the opposition no doubt concluded that it could force Morsi out by continuing the protests and did not have to negotiate with him. That assumption was reinforced when el-Sisi later gave Morsi all of forty-eight hours to reach an accord with his adversaries. The general thus made worse the very crisis he invoked in defending the army’s intervention. This seems to be of no consequence to American liberals who have defended the coup.

In the wake of the coup many commentators here have warned that it will have the effect of radicalizing Islamists in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, because the lesson they will learn is that they will never be allowed to gain power via the ballot box—that the authoritarian old guard and the liberal democrats will join hands, though for different reasons, to prevent it. Another friend, who sees himself as a liberal, told me that he was tired of this argument and wondered why no one seemed to be making the case that the lesson the Islamists would learn is that they have to govern more democratically after they win elections.

That’s a fair point, but not an unassailable one. Effective democratic governance involves many things, but it includes learning to compromise with one’s opponents, often after the bitter lessons learned from trial and error. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil can’t be compared to Morsi, but she has had to deal with huge protests and public outrage recently and has had to figure out ways to calm the political waters.

But we won’t know how Morsi would have dealt with the mounting crisis he faced—one thing is for sure: he wouldn’t have called out the army—because the generals stepped in before he had a chance. Maybe he would have made matters worse and been forced to resign. Maybe he would have cut a deal. The point is that we’ll never know because that part of the democratic process was never allowed to play out.

Ultimately, Egyptians must decide how they want to be governed; it’s not for outsiders to choose for them, though those democrats among them who have welcomed the coup may be in for a surprise if they think that the generals will stay out of politics once a proper democracy has been established. To think of the Egyptian army as the midwife of democracy is laughable.

As for American liberals, what’s striking is how many have been willing to deny that what happened in Egypt was in fact a coup, or to say that it was and to compliment the army for its intervention. Either they like democracy in other countries so long as the outcomes of elections are acceptable to them, or their principles are not as rock solid as they believe, in which case they have more in common with people like ElBaradei than they think and certainly more than they would care to admit. Either way, it’s a worrisome blind spot.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.