When is a coup not a coup?

Mr. Mohammed Morsi, elected president of Egypt last year, has been removed from office. The powerful Egyptian military took action against their president, motivated by an apparent loss of support for him from the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people.

While the government that will now rule Egypt remains a work in progress, it is clear that Mr. Morsi, his supporters and others throughout the world must readjust their definition of democracy: “50 percent of the vote plus 1” is not a license to govern as they please. Democracy is more than the tyranny of numbers.

Mr. Morsi was one of Egypt’s leading Islamic politicians when he ran for president in last summer’s election. He prevailed in that ballot, receiving 51.7 percent of the vote in the runoff.

As promised during the campaign, upon his victory he resigned as head of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political party set up by the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2011 coup that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Governing did not come easily to Mr. Morsi. To overcome entrenched resistance by the former regime, he granted himself unlimited power in November to legislate without judicial oversight. After public and international backlash, he annulled that decree a month later, but public unease continued to grow.

Some complaints focused on his government’s inability to get the economy back on track. Officially, unemployment has reached 13 percent, but everyone believes the real number is much higher. There were shortages of diesel and gasoline and sometimes food. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, has not recovered since the uprising that overthrow Mr. Mubarak.

Today, nearly 40 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line and continuing political unrest scares off investment that is needed to get things back on track.

Other complaints reflected the determination of Mr. Morsi and his supporters to install like-minded Islamists throughout the government and lay the foundation for a takeover of the machinery of the state from within. Fears had been growing among secularists that the Morsi administration was a Trojan Horse fronting for a more radical government that would follow.

Those concerns were fed by Mr. Morsi’s tendency to disregard the growing number of Egyptians who were unhappy with his rule. That group included the 48.3 percent who voted for the other candidate in the 2012 presidential ballot as well as more and more former Morsi supporters who had lost faith in their president.

The result was mass protests that erupted across Egypt this summer that demanded Mr. Morsi’s resignation. Hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of Egyptians took to the streets to demand a new government. They were backed by the military, which issued a 48-hour ultimatum declaring that the president’s failure to heed those protests would result in his removal. He declined and the military took action, removing Mr. Morsi on July 3 and replacing him with a ruling council. That body will oversee a new election, the formation of a national coalition government, and “amendments” to the constitution.

Mr. Morsi and his supporters denounced the moves as a coup, a charge that the new government denies. The military and the new government counter that they are merely acting to protect Egypt’s status as a secular state and to ensure that the Cairo government represents all Egyptians. In their version, they have blocked a creeping Islamic coup of the Egyptian state.

Opposition to Mr. Morsi’s removal prompted demonstrations by his supporters, which have resulted in clashes. At least 50 people were killed in one incident. The military has detained Mr. Morsi and is investigating charges against him.

Other Muslim officials and leaders have been arrested on charges of either inciting violence or engaging in such acts. The military denies it is cracking down on Islamists.

There appear to be grounds to charges leveled by Mr. Morsi and his supporters that there was resistance to his rule by the former regime that may well have reached the level of conspiracy. Gasoline shortages that were prevalent before his removal have ended. Government employees, including the police, who were previously hard to find are back at work.

There is no doubt that the military, which had thought that it could do business with Mr. Morsi, lost faith in its partner. The military controls some 40 percent of the Egyptian economy. Protection of those economic interests is a paramount concern.

It is not yet clear if the military felt that Mr. Morsi was attempting to undermine that stake in the same way that he sought to infiltrate sympathizers into the government, or if mismanagement was enough to alienate the armed forces.

Mr. Morsi suffered from a flawed understanding of democracy. He felt that his electoral majority insulated him from challenge: “50 percent plus one” justified any action.

Sadly, this mentality is quite widespread. It is visible in Turkey. U.S. President George W. Bush dismissed critics with the famous rejoinder that “we had an accountability moment: the 2004 elections.” Mere majorities do not make a democracy.

Democracy is a process as well as an outcome, and respect for losers is as important as the spoils that go to the victor. It is this disrespect for the democratic process and the will of all Egyptians that has some wondering who truly launched the coup in Egypt.

  • 思德

    It applied to Bush. Does it apply to Obama, too?