Why Yesterday’s Military Coup was Good for the Future of Democracy in Egypt 

There is plenty of joy on the streets of Cairo today, but doom and gloom pronouncements are coming from a substantial number of Egypt watchers in the West. While their hesitancy to cheer a military coup is understandable, it is ultimately misplaced. Critics of the coup fail to recognize the legitimate grievances voiced by the June 30 protesters and how high the stakes for democracy were in Egypt.

After the January 25 Revolution, people were talking about the success of the revolutionaries in ousting the Mubarak regime even though it was the military who took power. While there were some who labeled the Mubarak ouster a coup, the far more popular position was that the will of the people had been carried out. Why haven’t today’s events been characterized similarly? After all, 14 million Egyptians came out to demand the president’s resignation.

The difference in many people’s minds seems to be that Morsi was an elected official. The biggest complaint I am seeing on Twitter and Facebook is that the removal of an elected president by the military sets a bad precedent for the future of democracy in Egypt.

But it is important to understand the context through which Egyptians see their national politics. This is what Egypt does not have: Egypt does not have a stable democracy. It does not have stable institutions with clearly defined powers. Probably most importantly, the Arab world’s most populous country does not have a shining history of democratic rule.

It is easy for those in the West who live in true democracies to say Egyptians should have waited until the next election to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The truth is, that argument relies on the idea that Egyptians would have the ability to vote the president out at all.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have been elected; that does not mean that they were democratic. When Morsi declared in November of last year that presidential decrees were not subject to judicial oversight, he effectively held executive, legislative, and judicial power. He only retreated from this position after two weeks of intense public pressure. Many Egyptians never again trusted the president or his party.

Khaled Fahmy, chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo, points out that the Brotherhood seemed to believe that winning an election was all they had to do to govern democratically.

They have thought that running and winning free and fair elections was what the revolution was all about. When Morsy won with a 52 % of the vote, his group convinced him that this is a sufficient source of legitimacy and that the revolution, now that it has fulfilled its main objective, is over. People should now go back home and mind their business. This was a disastrous reading of the political situation. People did not take to the streets in Jan-Feb 2011 and risk their lives only to have free and fair elections. And they were not willing to go back home just because someone won the presidential elections (no matter who), until they made sure that this person at least appeared to be answering their main demands.

The main failure of the transition of post-January 25 Egypt was its emphasis on whom would govern the country, and not what the structure of a new, democratic government should be. Before selecting a president or parliament, Egypt should turn its attention to creating the basic law that specifies the powers of these institutions and sets clearly defined rules for things like the calling of early elections or the impeachment of the president.

If there is a way forward to a democratic Egypt, it begins with the creation of a new government with stable institutions that have clearly defined roles, and that has the inclusion of different sectors of Egyptian society built into its framework. Otherwise, we can expect to see the continuation of strongman rule and street democracy.

Today’s events give Egyptians a second chance to restructure their government. After a year of pessimism, division and ill will, there is much that we can still hope for. The June 30 protests will be recognized as a popular reclamation of the vision of the Arab Spring. If the Egyptian people can keep up the pressure, we may be seeing the creation of a truly democratic Egypt in the coming weeks.