In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

Morsi was removed from power not for crimes against the state, but largely for poor job performance and having too many political enemies (particularly in the military). These are issues to be settled at the ballot box, not by mobs and tanks surrounding the presidential palace in Cairo.
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As someone who has devoted the past two and a half years of his life to the Arab Spring, having fought in Libya and now helping in Syria with the hope that their February 17 and March 15 revolution anniversaries will one day be as important to their nations as July 4 is to mine, I am deeply concerned that Egypt's first attempt at democracy has been snuffed out by the same Egyptian military that only a couple of years ago was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

Many had hoped that Egypt's January 25 revolution date would be etched in stone as the start of democracy in Egypt, but that hope began to fade as events unfolded in Tahrir Square over the past week. Many of the same protestors who two and a half years ago risked their lives to chant ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want to overthrow the regime) were now calling for immediate political change in a democratic system outside of the electoral process they had fought so hard to achieve.

The popular protests, a justified expression of grievances and free speech, provided the military enough cover to overthrow the democratically elected government and suspend a constitution that so many had sacrificed so much to achieve in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

This development was then celebrated by some of the same activists who had just a year earlier celebrated elections and the triumph of democracy.

In a way, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was an entirely predictable outcome. As I wrote in The Huffington Post shortly before Morsi's election in June, 2012, "Depending on just how bad it gets, this prolonged suffering will likely end Egypt's experiment with Islamism at the next election, but not soon enough for most Egyptians."

At the next election. It was supposed to be a democracy, after all. That is what those who died in Tahrir Square fought for, and what those inspired by their example have fought and died for in Libya and Syria. I too was inspired by their example: the flags, rallies, and jubilation I witnessed in Tahrir Square a few weeks after the Egyptian revolution while on my way to the Libyan border further strengthened my resolve to fight in the Libyan revolution against the Gaddafi regime.

Weeks after the Mubarak regime fell in 2011, Egyptians were still celebrating their victory in Tahrir Square every Friday. (March, 2011)

Mohamed Morsi's election in 2012 was complicated, a consequence of there being too many moderate candidates and the vote being split among them, which paved the way for Morsi winning 51.7 percent of the vote against Ahmed Shafiq (Mubarak's last prime minister) in a runoff election. Most Egyptians did not want Morsi as president, but with their votes split among so many of his opponents they were eventually left with the distasteful choice between a pro-revolution Muslim Brotherhood candidate and a remnant of the old regime. Many of those who voted for Morsi regarded it not as a vote for him, but instead a vote for the revolution.

And as I argued in 2012, Morsi's electoral victory was not necessarily a bad result for two very important reasons:

  1. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood had learned that ballots could be better than bombs. Unfortunately, many Islamists in Egypt (and elsewhere) will now likely conclude that being part of the political system is impossible and that they should focus on destroying it. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El Haddad couldn't wait 24 hours before hinting at this, telling Anderson Cooper of CNN "At the end of the day, we are committed to democracy and to peaceful change of power. But if the road to democracy every time ... gets derailed ... what other option are the people left with?"
  2. Most importantly, whoever wins the first elections after a successful Arab Spring revolution will be voted out of power in subsequent elections because they will fail to meet the public's unreasonably high post-revolution expectations. Morsi's disappointing performance as president would have paved the way for a triumph of moderate candidates at the next election, who would have had the benefit of not only learning from Morsi's mistakes, but also having greater political capital as a consequence of the public's lowered expectations after Morsi.

The people don't always get the president they want. Nearly every American has voted for a losing candidate, and you dust yourself off and wait until the next election to vote again. As Will Rogers once said, "One of the evils of democracy is that you have to put up with the man you elect whether you want him or not."

Egyptians did have a lot to put up with. Morsi confirmed their worst fears about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power -- attempts to curtail newly-won freedoms and to tighten his grip on power, mismanagement of the economy, a tourism industry on life-support, and strained relations with the international community. In the past year, Morsi's approval rating in Egypt had dropped from a high of 74 percent to around 25 percent before the recent protests began.

Americans have also experienced many challenges during our 237 year democracy: we have had unpopular presidents, impeachments, and even a civil war. But through it all, Americans never surrendered their liberty to military generals for the sake of expediency, as has occurred in Egypt.

If Egypt is to become a true democracy, the government cannot serve at the pleasure of the military. Morsi was removed from power not for crimes against the state, but largely for poor job performance and having too many political enemies (particularly in the military). These are issues to be settled at the ballot box, not by mobs and tanks surrounding the presidential palace in Cairo.

As economist John K. Galbraith wrote, "When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are by that act inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, and that any revolt will be against them."

The recent overthrow of Egypt's elected government is in many ways a revolt by Egyptians against themselves. That should give even Morsi's most passionate opponents cause for alarm.

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