LONDON – The coup d’etat by the Egyptian Army in Cairo on July 3 and the arrest of President Mohamed Morsi and his entourage should not be interpreted as signalling the end of the Arab spring or of the possibility of progress in Egypt toward the adoption of democratic norms.
Revolutions against an autocracy rarely lead directly to the immediate establishment of a democratic regime. The French revolution of 1789 led to the terror and eventually to the autocratic French empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is difficult to date the real start of French style democracy but it certainly did not come until after the fall of the second French Empire following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Deng Xiaoping, on being questioned about the effects of the French Revolution, famously declared that it was too soon to tell.
Morsi was elected president of Egypt in 2012 by a thin margin in ostensibly democratic elections, although in a country with such a large population that had suffered years of autocratic rule, it is not clear how accurate the electoral rolls were. Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been persecuted and repressed under the Mubarak regime.
Despite his thin majority and the outspoken opposition of the largely secular Egyptian middle class, Morsi and his friends in the Muslim Brotherhood immediately after his election began to work for an Islamic state and the imposition of Shariah law. They soon demonstrated their contempt for the constitution, which they had ensured was biased in favor of Islamic institutions and law, by issuing a “constitutional declaration,” which set the President above the law.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to think that the army, which had propped up the Mubarak regime, had been rendered toothless by the revolution, which had ousted Mubarak and his cronies. They also felt able to ignore the fact that the United States was in effect the army’s paymaster and that U.S. assistance was of crucial importance to the Egyptian economy. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was feted by Morsi in Cairo, this was seen as a direct affront to the army and a threat to relations with the U.S., which might feel impelled to cut off aid to Egypt. Some must have wondered whether Egypt, with its largely Sunni population, was contemplating joining hands in the Middle East with Shiite Iran, which would upset the balance of power in the area and worsen Egypt’s relations with Israel.
The Morsi regime did little or nothing to tackle Egypt’s serious economic problems. In recent years the urban population of such big cities as Cairo and Alexandria had expanded vastly and an influential middle class with largely secular interests had grown in importance. No attempt seems to have been made to reach out to them or to the large numbers of unemployed youths in the big cities. The Morsi regime concentrated on burnishing their Islamic credentials and failed to recognize the importance not only of industry and trade but also of tourism to the prosperity of Egypt and its people.
It was hardly surprising in these circumstances that mass demonstrations against the Morsi regime grew in intensity. When the president’s own supporters with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood staged counter-demonstrations, it looked very probable that Egypt would lapse into civil war. A civil war in Egypt would be far more dangerous than that in Syria, which has led to more than 100,000 deaths.
It was therefore to be expected that the army would decide that it must step in. It shows the blind obstinacy of Morsi and his henchmen that they do not seem to have anticipated the army’s ultimatum and action against the regime.
No supporter of democratic forms of government can be happy that an ostensibly democratically elected president has been ousted by a military coup d’etat, but this has happened in other countries such as Pakistan and Fiji, and need not preclude the eventual adoption of a democratic form of government. The appointment of a senior judge as interim president and of a prime minister with an international profile such as Mohamed El Baradei — although his appointment is currently being held up in Parliament — suggests that such progress is possible.
Democracy does not mean solely free and fair elections, although these are essential components of a democratic regime. Other vital elements include a constitution that guarantees basic human rights, and a free press. But a key feature must be a system of justice that applies equally to all and ensures the rule of law. In a country such as Egypt with its significant Coptic Christian community freedom of religion must also be enshrined in law. These features should not be regarded by Islamists as contrary to their religious beliefs but will be hard for Islamic extremists to accept.
The need now in Egypt is for the new regime to start building truly democratic institutions and to work toward a new and democratic constitution. It may not be possible to call new elections immediately but it would be unwise to postpone these for too long.
The Muslim Brotherhood singularly failed to reach out to its secular opponents. It will be difficult for the new regime to try to seek reconciliation with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom are under arrest. But long-term peace in Egypt cannot be ensured by repression and dialogue must be attempted.
There is very little that other countries can do to help Egypt in its present tribulations except by developing a dialogue with Egypt’s new leaders and avoiding interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. We cannot welcome the military coup but we have to accept that it is better than a civil war or chaos.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.