The Caravan

A Coup is a Coup is a Coup

Monday, July 29, 2013

You know a country is benighted when no less a figure than Tony Blair, the world’s official envoy for the Middle East (whatever that means), turns apologist for a coup d’état, stating blithely that the army had no choice but to unseat the elected president.  You know a country is benighted when pundits in the West engage in verbal calisthenics to call its coup by any name but that of “coup” because it is seen to reflect an irrepressible popular will—and, as such, transcends all the inconvenient grubbiness of the c-word.

So let us agree outright that what happened in Egypt—the booting from office of President Mohammad Morsi—was a coup. However noble the sheen put upon it, a coup is a coup is a coup. (As Popeye the Sailor once put it: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” Plain words; plain meaning; plain truth.)

In calling the coup by its proper name, we make it harder to duck, or glide by, the axiom with which we’ve all been raised: an elected government can lose power legitimately only through an election. And when the elected government in question is the first democratic government in 5,000 years of Egyptian civilization, and that government is permitted to last a mere 12 months in office before its neck is wrung by men in uniform, we must be particularly careful about saying that what happened is A Good Thing.

Egypt had been democratic for one-five-thousandth of its history when the coup occurred, and those who would say that the coup was a fitting conclusion to President Morsi’s administration resort to arguments that revolve around the unfitness for democracy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—by which they mean, of course, the unfitness for democracy of Egypt itself, for those who voted for the Brotherhood in their millions will do so again if permitted. That is at the root of all Western angst over democracy in the Middle East: give the vote to Muslims who haven’t had the vote before, who haven’t had the vote—as David Brooks might put it—in their “intellectual DNA,” and they will vote for the parties that the West likes least.

You can take the Muslim out of politics in Egypt (as Mubarak did, and as Sadat and Nasser did before him), but you can’t take politics out of the Muslim. Our aim as global citizens is to ensure—to the increasingly feeble extent that we can—that Muslim politics in Egypt is democratic. And in order for it to stand a fighting chance to be so, a democratically elected Muslim president has to be allowed to remain in office for longer than a paltry year; he has to be allowed to prove himself over the length of a presidential term, or more. (And if democracy is conditional on an Islamist president not winning, how, pray, is it a democracy?)

It is deeply unsatisfactory to argue that elections do not a perfect democracy make, that we must help Egypt build civic institutions before the country can be deemed ready to embark on an electoral path.

Modern nations are not mere laboratories. If the United States is to be taken seriously as a promoter of democracy beyond its borders, it has to be prepared for swift elections to precede the perfecting of institutions, and for those institutions to emerge from the neo-democratic country’s scrappy, turbulent political process. If states are treated as fit for membership of the U.N. irrespective of their religious, ethnic or “intellectual DNA”, they have to be treated as fit for procedural democracy from the get-go. Any assertion to the contrary is patronizing neo-colonialism masquerading as (patronizing) liberalism.

Which brings me to a personal comparison. Egypt and my native India began their modern national movements at roughly the same time, by the 1920s, and sought independence from British rule. India has held on to constitutionalism, while Egypt has succumbed to the culture of the strongman in uniform. Why the difference? An answer is that the earliest leaders of independent India were civilians with unimpeachable nationalist credentials. (Think Nehru, Patel, Azad, and others.) When they made mistakes, they lost elections. Such men were largely absent from Egypt’s early modern history. After feckless “Freddy” Farouk—le roi—Egypt only became truly independent via a military coup; and Israel was used as an alibi thereafter for a permanent state of emergency and absolute executive authority. (Piquantly, once Sadat opted for rapprochement, peace with Israel became the excuse for keeping democracy at bay!)

Civilian institutions of the sort that Western analysts regard as essential preconditions for proper democracy were never allowed to develop in Egypt. This, of course, has served to make the country more like Pakistan than India. Ironically, even Pakistan is democratic today, while Egypt is not. All of which brings us back to Morsi, and the killing of institutions in the crib. Behold the start of another long Egyptian night.

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter research fellow in journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He is a former editor of Newsweek. 

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