World Affairs

Coup d’état


Brothers and sisters of the revolution, you fucked up. You do not believe in democracy if you uphold the right to rule of your guy. Even fascists are democrats by that measure. No, it is precisely when you uphold the right of rule of those who you disagree with – when they have gained power by legitimate means like Mr. Morsi – that you are democratic. Same with free speech: you don’t believe in free speech if you are unwilling to defend the right of those who you disagree with to speak their mind. This is elementary.

Let’s be clear about what this is and isn’t. This is not the people deposing their duly elected president. This is a military coup d’état. Sure, the millions of people who mobilized in Cairo cheered as the generals moved in to arrest Mr. Morsi. Indeed, the mob explicitly called on the generals to intervene. More often than not, military coups enjoy at least momentary popular support. The fact that thronging mobs demanded Mr. Morsi’s ouster doesn’t make this a people’s revolt.

One may very well see this as a coup d’état against a legitimate ruler yet support it anyway (sort of like when I celebrated the extra-judicial execution of one Mr. bin Laden). Indeed, the Policy Tensor would, in fact, support this vanguard action to topple the Muslim Brotherhood government if there was a reasonable chance of stabilizing a tolerably liberal order. Unfortunately, it is clear that the probability of such an outcome is vanishingly small. Let me elaborate.

Mubarak presided over an authoritarian state with an institutional structure intricately interlaced with a vast patronage network. The edifice worked great for the ‘state bourgeoisie’ – Mubarak’s cronies – and others plugged into the network of connected insiders. Not so much for the Egyptian populace. This institutional nexus evolved, for the most part, in the aftermath of the failure of Nasserism. Egypt became a US client state. The flow of American military aid strengthened the hand of the Egyptian security elites.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Egypt, like so many other countries, instituted neoliberal reforms and essentially gave up on the socialist project which was widely seen to have failed. The bureaucratic apparatus of the state did not disappear of course. It was, just as elsewhere, transformed into a vast patronage network. Instead of going down with the turn to the market, corruption, just as elsewhere, intensified. The Mubarak-era ‘old guard’ is precisely this community of businessmen and bureaucrats who were the primary beneficiaries of this patronage network. This was the dominant strata of Egyptian society whose firm control over the state apparatus came undone on February 11, 2011. The security elites form the core of this institutional structure. So when the generals stepped in to oust Mubarak, it was a coup d’état. It was, however, against an illegitimate authoritarian ruler, and – this is perhaps the most important part – there was a real possibility of a free and fair election that would put Egypt on a path towards democracy.

Unfortunately, the only other organized political force in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood. Hunted for decades, the influence of the Islamist support network was driven underground but not really marginalized. The triumphant victory of the Muslim Brotherhood was not surprising. What was surprising was the respectable chunk of votes gathered by the salafis, the hyper-conservative über-Islamists in the payroll of the oil monarchies. The lack of political unity among urban liberals was, perhaps, to be expected. In any event, the Muslim Brotherhood promised to shelve the most reactionary elements of their agenda and form an inclusive government.

Mr. Morsi – and this should not have come as a surprise – failed to deliver on his many campaign pledges. Had he survived till the next election, the Muslim Brotherhood would’ve scrambled away all its political capital. This would’ve also allowed the liberal opposition to unify and build an extensive support network. This coup d’état has short-circuited that possibility.

Political parties take time to build. This was the lesson of the last election. The Economist is urging the generals to hold elections quickly. I strongly disagree. Holding the elections quickly would almost certainly guarantee a Muslim Brotherhood victory, perhaps with an even bigger mandate than last year. There is now no good option but to maintain de facto military rule for the next few years. This is the primary reason why I think the vanguard action to kick out Mr. Morsi was so wrong-headed. Sure, you can depose Mr. Morsi. Then what? What are you going to do in the next election? Rig the election to ensure that ElBaradei wins?

As important, what the hell do you intend to do with the Muslim Brotherhood? The Islamists are not going anywhere. They cannot be simply wiped out. They cannot be marginalized to the fringes of Egyptian politics. They will remain a potent political force for the foreseeable future. By forcibly removing the Mr. Morsi from power, you have reinforced the authoritarian tendencies among Islamists. Why should they lay down their guns now? Can we ever trust them again to take power?

Instead of moderating the Islamists by bringing them into a liberal polity, the blatant hypocrisy of this coup d’état has strengthened the radicals. The New York Times report on the repercussions on political Islam quoted a forty year old merchant in Cairo: “Didn’t we do what they asked? We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?” Others are drawing the same lessons.

Good luck getting out of this mess. Now, you can still go ahead and label me a class traitor, as you watch Egypt burn. 


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