It has been just over two years since Egypt began its grand experiment with democracy. In 2011 Egyptians rose up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Following 60 years of autocratic rule under the National Democratic Party (NDP), Egyptians found themselves faced with their first real experiment in democracy. This trial with self-determination was hampered by the presence of a military regime that was actively dictating how that future government would come about. “It is also important to note,” says Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy, “that the military [had] already been ruling [Egypt] since 1952.” The military, he argues, did not get involved in toppling Mubarak out of patriotic fervor, but instead “sacrificed” Mubarak to maintain the benefits of their position in Egypt’s government.
The 2012 election of Mohamed Morsi was hardly a textbook democratic election either. The ruling military council had blocked several candidates, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s own choice, Khairat al-Shater, who was disqualified based on a prior criminal conviction. Morsi, the Brotherhood’s second choice, managed to secure roughly 25% of the initial vote, enough to force a run-off against former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi ultimately won 51% of the national vote, but it was hardly a plurality. Morsi only gained 5 million votes in the first round of elections, and 13 million in the run-off, with the suggestion that he only gained the extra votes from Egypt’s revolutionary factions to ensure that Shafiq would lose. In the end, however, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as Egypt’s president, an idea that was literally impossible just one year before. Egypt’s grand experiment had begun.
The response by the United States throughout the 2011 revolution and beyond sent confusing messages about its supposed support for Egyptian democracy. It started by reasserting its support for Mubarak, only calling for his ouster when it seemed inevitable. The US then threw its support behind the military regime, its true ally in Egypt, despite the latter’s crackdown on civilian protesters, despite draconian laws and despite its outright interference in the democratic process. When Egypt finally elected her first true President, however, the US desperately tried to pass over a lukewarm (at best) response as outright support for the “Egyptian people.” But, the fact remained, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood now ruled Egypt and Washington was not pleased. Congress began to see everything from threats to Israel’s security to the Brotherhood’s penetration of the Obama administration.
It was at that same time, however, that the experiment started to unravel. Morsi took power with a parliament that had been ordered dissolved by the military regime, a decision that was later upheld by the nation’s courts. The economy, already in shambles when Morsi came to power, continued to decline. The Brotherhood’s Renaissance Project, a 20 year plan to economic success following an Islamist road map, appeared to be a failure right out of the gate. Growth in the country’s GDP stalled, the Egyptian pound saw its value continue to decline, unemployment continued to grow and Egypt could not secure a vital $4.8 billion loan from the IMF. Morsi’s government steered the Mubarak course on energy subsidies and job creation and the economic picture was grim.
Politically, the Morsi government was not much better. Morsi failed to make any efforts to reach out to other political parties or interests, instead seeking to solidify the Brotherhood’s, and his own, hold on power. He declared himself immune to judicial review and above the new, highly ineffectual Constitution (which itself only garnered support from 21 percent of the country’s voters). He interfered with the national judiciary, imposed strict controls on the national media, and used highly sectarian language in his public statements that further alienated his would-be fellow democrats. “Simply put,” writes the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna, “he failed to comprehend that his secret society had no monopoly on Egypt and that their electoral victories were not an unlimited mandate.” In short, they adopted the trappings of the Mubarak regime and “the Brotherhood chose to pursue a formalistic procedural transition that saw elections alone as democracy, while ignoring substantive reform of a failing system.”
This failure of the elected to actually represent their electors ultimately brought about what political and social activist Alaa Abd El Fattah has called “Schrodinger’s Coup,” the removal of Morsi from power, which was both a military coup and not, depending on your viewpoint. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand Morsi’s ouster or resignation, the military stepped in and the Brotherhood’s government was swept aside. Egypt again fell under the control of a military controlled regime, the people “succumbed to national amnesia,” writes filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton, “cheering the APCs that crushed protestors at Maspero just twenty months ago.” The Brotherhood has insisted it was a military coup, while others style it as a continuation of the January 25th revolution, a necessary step on Egypt’s road to democracy.
The United States has been accused of both propping up the Morsi regime, and of being responsible for its downfall. The Obama administration has steered away from the word “coup” to avoid enacting a federal law which requires that the US freeze all monetary and military aid to a regime founded on a coup d’état. To be sure, Washington finds itself in an unusual bind, supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected leader balanced against getting rid of an administration it didn’t care for to begin with. To be sure, Morsi is no Mossedegh, but the parallels are too interesting to ignore. Congressional Republicans were quick to point out that the Obama administration had been mistaken in supporting the Morsi government to begin with, a curious suggestion that the US should ignore a democratically elected leader.
Talking heads have been replete with insinuations that this is proof that Islam and democracy are incompatible, that Arabs cannot properly rule themselves or that military power and not “mob rule” should determine who runs a country. Such claims are short sighted, however, coming from a nation that once faced a military overthrow of Congress (for far less reasons than there were recently in Egypt), that once raised its military to put down a popular insurrection or that had its third President elected, not by the people, but by a vote (well, 36 of them) of the House of Representatives. Our experiment with democracy was not perfect, and Egypt’s is not, and will not be, either. But, it should also not be our position to belittle or ignore the will of those people either. It is high time to let Egypt be Egypt and for Egyptians to determine their own destiny.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist