Can we find balance under Egypt’s ‘fluctuating’ democracy?

Anna Jacobs assistant editor for Morocco World News – WNN SOAPBOX

Egyptian woman Cairo
An Egyptian woman in Cairo holds up her stained fingers to prove that she has been part of Egypt’s first democratic presidential election in June 2012. At the time no one could have predicted the extreme rocky road ahead for democracy in Egypt.  Image: Jenny Montasir

(WNN/MWN) Charlottesville, Virginia, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: If you have been watching the news for the last few days (or the last few years for that matter), you know that one of the most important and uncertain events unfolding in the Middle East right now relates to Egypt and its fluctuating relationship with democracy, liberalism, and its “post Arab Spring” transition.  There are many political and social actors involved in this process, ranging from Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s military chief, former president Muhamad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Morsi protestors, the Tamarod (rebel) movement that called for Morsi’s ouster, and an interim government led by President Adly Mahmoud Mansour and Egypt’s liberal hero [now former] Vice-President Mohammed El Baradei.  Of course, we can’t forget the United States’ rather feeble attempt at facilitating dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim government, which did not lead to any sort of diplomatic solution.

In response to this failure last week, interim president Mansour ominously stated that:

Diplomatic efforts ended today [August 8]. The state gave room for all necessary efforts to be exhausted in order to urge the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters to reject violence, prevent bloodshed and cease the disruption of Egyptian society by holding its future hostage. [The Brotherhood and its allies bear] full responsibility for the failure and what will follow.

Following this statement, Egypt and the world has been anxiously fearing the looming military crackdown against pro-Morsi protestors, and today, the violence began in earnest. Everything seems to be happening so quickly and opinions on Egypt’s future are furiously circulating among the Egyptian population and an international chorus of voices. Both are nervously watching Egypt’s experiment with democracy crumble, minute by minute.

As I write, the number of pro-Morsi protestors killed in the military crackdown has reached 287 and continues to grow, according to the Health Ministry. A nationwide curfew has been imposed in several keys areas throughout Egypt, the military imposed a month long state of emergency, and Vice President Mohammed El Baradei has resigned from his post in the interim government, stating that: “It has become too difficult to continue bearing responsibility for decisions I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear.”

As Samer S. Shehata so articulately put it “Egypt has a dilemma: its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.” As is often the case in processes of democratization, people have many different priorities. Understandably so, people reacted angrily to Morsi’s blunders.

While he was democratically elected, he essentially turned into a dictator, claiming sweeping powers for himself, while also promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative values. All of this may have been chalked up to a rough transition if perhaps Morsi and the MB had successfully made the transition from opposition to governing. The economy, investment and tourism especially, nosedived even further during Morsi’s one year in office. The discussions of social justice, employment, and economic welfare, which made short tenure. The Coptic Christian population, with a long history of persecution, were also fearful of a coming theocracy that would prioritize the rights of Muslim Brotherhood supporters over individuals with liberal ideas and opposing religious convictions. Today’s military crackdown also resulted in attacks on the Christian minority with news outlets citing attacks on 15 churches and three Christian schools by alleged “Islamist protestors.”

When protestors came out in the hundreds of thousands in July 2013, shouting chants similar to those angrily leveled at former dictator Hosni Mubarak,(and ironically also against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces)  Morsi began to speak a bit more honestly, admitting he had: “made many mistakes, there is no question. Mistakes happen and need to be corrected.”  But it was too little too late for the Egyptian protestors that were reconvening in Tahir Square and all over the country.

Should the focus have been on democratic institutions or democratic ideals? Are the two mutually exclusive? Where does economic empowerment, security and stability, and human rights fit into this equation? After Morsi’s tumultuous and autocratic year in power, many Egyptians understandably argued that they needed “to take back” the democratic experiment from the hold of a dictator.

Morsi supporters focus on the legitimacy that came with his election win, while the Tamarod movement rejected this, choosing instead to focus on his assault on liberalism and his dissent into an abyss of abusing his mandate. The revolutionary fervour and people power in the streets was contagious as Egyptians moved to throw off the yoke of yet another oppressor.

The military, with Papa Sisi as its flashy figurehead, conveniently claimed to be the “guardian of democratization,” as they responded to the calls for change and overthrew President Morsi (and subsequently arrested multiple MB leaders).  In other words, they were simply responding to the will of the Egyptian people. How can you get more democratic than that? The will of the people implemented with an iron fist by …the military. Doesn’t sound quite right to me. Makes me think of the military implementing the “will of the people,” through a coup in Algeria in 1992 after parliamentary elections had torpedoed the Islamists into power. This led to the marginalization and radicalization of many elements within the Islamist movement and a decade of civil war that took over one hundred thousand lives

To make matters worse, Morsi’s ouster turned into a debate about its “coup” like nature. Was it a coup or not? This characterization was not pursued by the West, and especially not the United States, because it is against US law to give foreign aid to a state where the military has overthrown a democratically-elected government. So, in typical political fashion, the US began an equivocal exercise in geopolitical realism, right out of Henry Kissinger’s book. Should we be shocked? Not really. The United States has a history of supporting autocrats all over the world, as long as they’re not Islamist that is…

As The Independent Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk contemplated “When is a military coup not a military coup? When it happens in Egypt, apparently.”

While the US government witnessed events unfolding, they condemned violence from both sides, but then they refused to call the military coup a coup. This move will only solidify accusations that the West (with the US and the UK leading the charge) applies a double standard when it comes to secularist and Islamist sentiments. This will do nothing but continue to alienate the Muslim Brotherhood from the political arena.

Whether you agree with the Muslim Brotherhood or not, they make up a significant part of the Egyptian political and social landscape and must be included in Egypt’s national fabric if it really hopes to promote an all-inclusive democracy. At the heart of the cautious American reaction is the peace agreement with Israel and the fear of destabilizing the region even further, but responses like these only reaffirm assertions of western hypocrisy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the events “deplorable,” expressed criticism against the military’s state of emergency, and urged elections as soon as possible.  This is the right idea, but the reactionary nature of these remarks makes me kind of want to shake someone and ask, are you surprised? Are military coups typically followed by periods of power sharing and inclusive civil debate? Wasn’t SCAF not precariously on the brink of outright military rule, which Egyptians strongly condemned, not so long ago? The West could have taken a vocal stand against the military’s assault on unarmed Islamist protestors around two weeks ago. Yet up until today, Secretary Kerry had only managed to ask that Egypt’s leaders “step back from the brink.”

There is no simple answer to the dilemma that Egyptians face, but I am inclined to think that there was and still is, another way.

The Obama administration and the US Congress must rethink its financial support for the Egyptian military. Such support should have been seriously questioned by US lawmakers after the military coup on July 3. While there was a debate on the legality of foreign aid to Egyptian military leaders on Capitol Hill, nothing has yet to change because the US administration refuses to call Morsi’s removal a coup. Ignoring this and the subsequent violence that followed only adds insult to injury.

This violent clash demands the question of who and what could constitute a potential “third way.” Has the optimism of the Tamarod movement been shaken?

Will the liberal supporters of the military coup continue to side with the generals? Is there a way to incorporate the diverse array of political preferences in Egypt? The secular vs. religious debate may seem to organize the debate into a neat little dichotomy, but it does not fairly represent the complexities of Egyptians’ political and social priorities, which may include more tangible benefits like ending the violence, promoting security and stability, and getting the economy back on track, along with democratization and civil liberties. While the ultimate desire is to have economic rights coupled with political ones, the democratization process is far from linear and prone to setbacks.

In other words, there must be another way to get Egypt back on track toward inclusive, participatory, and empowering democracy. Violent crackdowns leaving hundreds dead, like the horrific display the world witnessed on August 15, should have no place in this effort.


Anna Jacobs graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Government, Foreign Affairs, and French literature. She will be starting a Master of Philosophy program in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford this fall. She is Morocco World News’ assistant editor. 


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