In Egypt, Force v. Power (II)

(KHALED DESOUKI AFP/Getty Images via Globalpost.com)

It’s been sickening listening to usually sensible and decent people try to justify the ugly ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state. Watch David Brooks, for example, speaking on PBS’ Newshour, contort himself into a principle for the outcome of a wholly unprincipled thing happening to somebody he hates:

I used to think, if we just have elections, that the elections will have a moderating effect on governments.

Even if you take radicals, especially throughout the Middle East, you take radicals, they have to pay attention to public opinion. They have to pick up the trash. They have to fix the potholes. The act of governing will moderate them. And, therefore, we just should insist on election after election and we should respect the results of every election.

I think the evidence from the Muslim Brotherhood, at least, is that if you have got a group which is really a radical, almost religious totalitarian group, the elections will not have a moderating influence. They will take advantage of elections in essence to end democracy.

And I think that is what they were slowly doing. They were undermining democracy to make democracy impossible. It was a self-negating election. And so I think what the coup people did was legitimate. And what all those millions of people on the street did is legitimate.

A friend of mine, Jeffrey Goldberg, had a good line. May be bad short term for democracy, good long term for progress.

I quote him at length to avoid any reductionism. Brooks sounds peculiarly like an early agitator for Communism, from which many of his friends on the neoconservative right crawled, placing any violent or repressive means at the disposition of the all-important End. Who cares if democracy is harmed, when progress – Communism’s ultimate end for all humanity! – is achieved? (To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs!) And what good is democracy, anyway, if elections are “self-negating”? (Can’t we just throw the people out and elect a new one?)

It only gets worse. Jeremy Pressman writes that a military government may be better at “protecting minority rights, creating space for genuine and lasting political competition, and, more broadly, helping Egypt move forward.” Progress again! Couldn’t the army and police do that under a democratically elected president? Never mind that the army ultimately chooses whose rights, whose space, and which direction forward, because it controls the state. There is no real politics without moral choice, because there is no real choice out of the barrel of a gun. The concept of the benign dictatorship is a venal lie that refuses to die in the craniums of people smart enough to know better.

Joshua Keating and Ozan Varol seriously consider a “democratic coup d’etat,” as if that makes a lick of sense. Can you have an “authoritarian election”? “Totalitarian freedoms”? “Transparent censorship”?

It doesn’t take much to see all these observers’ frightening lack of faith in, and understanding of, politics and political process independent of democratic mechanisms. Even taking Brooks’ argument at face value – that Morsi was dismantling the very democracy that had elevated him to power – the protests against his rule indicated Egypt was a midpoint of the drama, not at its climax. And for anyone who would argue against this point, and to say that Egypt is better off now under military rule, we need look no farther than Turkey, where a political opposition movement has flourished against a similarly pugnacious president. The difference there is the army has, after 100 years, finally removed itself to the sidelines. While contentious and occasionally violent, Turkey’s protests have left far fewer people dead as a result. And Turkey’s democracy is still intact.

It is incredible that Brooks failed to acknowledge the inseparable actions of the Egyptian army in the coup. It was not the “people” who deposed the president, but the armed forces. Morsi is still being held incommunicado, now charged with espionage and murder. It is compelling indeed that hundreds of thousands of people took to Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere to protest against the President and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. This is as it should be in an open, free and political society. Of course we and President Morsi should take a petition signed by 22 million seriously. But now that movement and those millions have been denied their right to rein in the president on their own, by their own power, because the army has subsumed them by brute force.

Worse for the future of Egypt, this establishes a very ominous precedent, one Turkey took nearly a century to overcome: the ultimate arbiter of political rule is now the army. Having sat out the 2011 revolution and then forcefully deposed Morsi early this month, the army is effectively Egypt’s Pharaoh-maker. This is indisputably bad for Egyptian democracy and Egyptian politics, because the army may always have its metal-jacketed finger on the country’s political balance.

And it demonstrates to the Muslim Brotherhood – those whom Brooks despises so much – what they and their allies must do now. No longer content to build a true political power base in Egypt’s neighborhoods and quartiers and mosques and prisons and schools, they realize they must infiltrate the army, too. All over the Middle East, the like-minded are taking their lesson.

This is a terrible development. Because after decades of preaching the benefits of democracy, which includes the rule of law and democratic control of the armed forces, Egypt – with the tacit consent of the West – has cynically conceded that force can trump power. But that only means as long as those men with guns hold the future of political control in their hands along with their weapons, politics will be inseparably defined with violence, and bloodshed, and heartache.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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