The Coup in Egypt: Ten Questions and Answers

Mohammed Morsi is out in Egypt, and the military is busy trying to put together a new government. I am no Egypt expert, but I have a decent theoretical background in foreign affairs, so I’ll grapple with the crisis on that level. If the conclusions are depressing, well, welcome to the world of foreign affairs. Here are ten questions and answers about the recent events along the banks of the Nile.

(Also, a special thanks to my old college classmate, A.L., who has done an excellent job of trying to weigh the various arguments from a critical distance while many of his fellow Egyptians seize upon certain talking points and run with them. He’s done as good a job as any news source of collecting information and doing what he can to explain things to the rest of us.)

1. Is this really a coup d’etat?

Some defenders of Morsi’s overthrow have been leery of this word, and it certainly has a sinister air to it. But it very much meets the standard definition of a coup; the real question is whether the different circumstances surrounding this one make it any more justified. This one had plenty of popular support—a circumstance that, while not unheard of, is not common of coups. The military also hasn’t shown any desire to (directly) hold power via a military junta. Not all coups are created equal; they simply involve the military removing the head or heads of state. They can be bloodless and immediately hold elections, or they can be brutal and lead to a junta, but they’re still coups.

2. By that definition, wasn’t the initial overthrow of Hosni Mubarak also a coup?

Yes. During the initial uprising, many protesters claimed “the army and the people are one.” They quite clearly knew the military had the power to play kingmaker in Egypt. The problem is, the army and the people are not one: the military is an institution with its own set of interests that may or may not align with the rest of the population. When Mubarak finally lost his legitimacy amid the Arab Spring, their interests did align, and the army was all too happy to oblige the protesters and show the autocrat the door. They were allies of convenience.

3. So is this a revolution or not?

By the technical definition of a revolution, no, not at all. A true revolution doesn’t just throw out the man at the top; it fundamentally alters the power structure of the regime. It tosses out the old ruling class and puts a new one in place. There has not been any of that in Egypt. Mubarak, after all, was a military man who kept order in Egypt for decades. He was forced out by the military when he became a liability to maintaining that order. He may have fallen of his own accord had the protests gone on, but the military (for very understandable reasons, even if one is skeptical of the role of the military), sought to make the transition as smooth as possible. It wasn’t easy, and the generals went on to oversee an election that ostensibly transferred power to a new leadership. But through it all, the generals held the trump card.  Morsi committed the fatal error of believing it was a revolution, and that the social order had been upended. It was not. Had he stayed in power long enough to further consolidate his position, he might have been able to strip the military of its political role, as occurred in a number of Latin American countries over the past few decades. But even so, that would have been more of an ordered transition than a revolution.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Revolutions are, frankly, overrated. The U.S.’s worked, though it required an incredibly bloody civil war some 90 years later to properly consolidate itself. A few in eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War produced happy democracies, though they came under some very unique geopolitical circumstances. Just about all the others have killed a lot of people and resulted in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Most democracies emerge through a careful, perhaps even frustratingly slow, managed transition.

4. Is the coup a threat to Egyptian democracy?

More than anything, it just reinforces the fact that, in spite of that one election, Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes democratic in any real sense of the word. Opponents of the coup are quick to claim it undermines the democratic transition. Surely, they argue, it would have been better to wait, allow Morsi to continue to discredit himself, and let him be voted out in the next election. The problem was that it was hard to tell if Morsi had much interest in an actual democracy. The Brotherhood did an excellent job of convincing people (the military included) that it was going to play by the same rules as everyone else. Many of their actions since—running a presidential candidate when they said they would not, ramming through a new constitution, purging the judiciary—suggest otherwise. The difficulty comes in trying to figure just how far they were planning to go in flouting these rules, and there is no clean line between “democratic” and “autocratic” actions (people accuse American presidents of the latter just about every day, and not always without reason). I will defer to people with more knowledge of the situation to answer the question, but one’s opinion on the coup will turn on one’s beliefs about the Muslim Brotherhood’s motives. Now that they are out of power, we may never know how far they planned to go.

5. How will the Brotherhood react?

This is the million dollar question. If they find a way to work with the new government put in place by the military, all may yet end well. History, however, is not encouraging. “Unity” governments that are formed against groups of certain ideologies almost inevitably invite violence, as the excluded group takes up its only remaining means of protest. Given the size and political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, they would prove a formidable opponent. The early returns, with dozens of protesters shot dead, are not encouraging for a civil discourse. This could get very ugly very quickly.

6. So is it best to just trust the military in power and let them crush any opposition as they see fit, a la Pinochet in Chile, then transition back to democracy in an orderly way in a decade or two, once things have settled down?

Well, if you’re willing to live with the inevitable bloodshed and human rights violations and call them regrettable necessities of progress, I suppose it’s an option. There is a key distinction, however: Pinochet was fighting an ideology (communism) that, in time, came to be discredited and ultimately rejected by most of the planet. Barring some truly apocalyptic event, it’s hard to imagine anything that could similarly discredit Islamism, which bases its appeal in an interpretation of the word of God, not the postulates of a nineteenth-century German philosopher. They are entirely different animals. That said, the Islamists do base a lot of their appeal on their organization and effective social programs. If the Egyptian state could actually provide those services, interest in the Brotherhood might wane. But, to my knowledge, rising wealth is not really correlated with decreasing faith, and the process could take decades. This would be quite the gamble, even if the moral issues are left out.

7. In that case, we can’t give the military a carte blanche. Shouldn’t we get it out of politics right now?

No doubt the military has long been an impediment to democratic development in Egypt, and it may continue to be. They exist to perpetuate themselves and keep the military aid from the U.S. flowing in, and little else. But, for all their issues, they do guarantee some measure of order, and it’s impossible to imagine a democracy emerging from utter chaos. And right now, the military probably is the only thing keeping Egypt from utter chaos. To their credit, the generals have made an effort to conduct their coups about as smoothly as possible, and their presence might be needed again if the mobs rise up against some future president, whether to protect that figure or again negotiate a transition. They can’t do this forever, though; sooner or later they will begin to lose legitimacy if their solutions aren’t working. It may already be happening.

8. Wow, this sounds like a mess. Maybe they just should have lived with Mubarak?

This argument commits the conservative fallacy of believing that things will always stay the same. All autocracies come to an end. Mubarak would have died someday, or perhaps committed some even more heinous crime that would have had people after his head. The regime may have appeared quite stable, but sooner or later, its day of reckoning would have come. Even the most brilliantly designed autocracies (Mexico in the 20th century, for example) cannot last forever. Liberal democracy is the only form of government that has proven consistently capable of allowing for peaceable democratic transitions. The problem is that building a robust liberal democracy is very, very hard.

9. What should the U.S. do?

Very, very little. Recognize whoever is in power, encourage them to bring other voices to the table and adhere to international law, and little else. The U.S. is already perceived as meddling in everything, and has been accused of supporting each and every side. In a conflict in which no one has the obvious moral high ground, no good can come of throwing American power around and choosing sides. Egypt’s future belongs to the Egyptians, not the U.S., and recent lessons should have taught the U.S. that there is only so much it can do to shape the course of events in other countries’ domestic politics.

10. What should Egyptians do?

First and foremost, they should remember that national politics is not destined to determine happiness. They should go on with their lives, to the extent that raging mobs allow them, and work together with their neighbors with the full awareness that the state may not be able to provide much of anything—services, food, security—in the immediate future. If they pull together, Egyptians need not descend into some Hobbesian all-against-all state of nature. Back when Mubarak came down, there were stories of neighborhoods banding together to police themselves and maintain some semblance of order. That is the best defense mechanism people have. When it comes to maintaining some semblance of order in life, mobs in the street are nowhere near as effective as boring, local political activity, though I concede that this may not  always be possible under the compulsion of tyranny or amidst a civil war.

That is, I fear, where Egypt is headed. I pray I’m wrong, and hope the military and its transitional government can find some way to bring the Islamists back to the table.

Turkish Dismay and the U.S. in the Middle East

Turkish Dismay and the U.S. in the Middle East

The Middle East is not for the faint of heart. While there are clear trends and cultural ties that pull it together, it is such a large and complex collection of nations that it is incredibly easy misunderstand it. A number of people who will remain anonymous make a living doing so. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that thinking of the Middle East as a region with a coherent political history only weakens one’s understanding of what is going on in its constituent nations.

Take the Arab Spring, which began with a self-immolating pushcart vendor in Tunisia, set off a wave of instability that toppled several autocratic regimes, and sent ripples into even the most stable countries in the region. At first, it was hard not to be swept up in the fervor; I recall pulling up a live stream of al-Jazeera on one of the first days to be greeted by a horde of protesters storming across a bridge and pushing a bus into the Nile and thinking “this is pretty cool.” While there was plenty of chaos and heartbreak in the streets of Cairo as the weeks went by, there were also acts of true heroism and an explosion of hope that us Westerners can barely fathom. It looked like an inspirational moment that might swing the future of an entire region, especially when one considered Egypt’s cultural and political prominence in the Middle East.

Since then, the dream has soured somewhat. Egypt is far from the Western democracy some idealistic observers hoped it might become; instead, it is an unstable mess governed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet it was one of the more peaceful revolts, when compared to the brutal repression in several countries, the NATO-supported war in Libya (which has now spilled into Mali), and the horrific civil war in Syria. The future is anything but predictable, but it seems safe to say that history most any historical rendering of its events will have to be very, very nuanced.

The U.S. response to the crises has likewise been frustrating to anyone who expects any sort of symmetry: intervention in Libya, general support for the Egyptian opposition, hand-wringing in Syria, and steadfast support of the regime in Bahrain. The awkward response is understandable, given the limits of geopolitical reality and the measured sobriety in the wake of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, most of these conflagrations offer two bad choices: an existing autocrat or a complete power vacuum that tends to wind up empowering the well-organized hard-line Islamic groups (though there is plenty of variety within and among these groups). “Better the devil we know,” many sensible people say, but this presents a false choice. Even if Hosni Mubarak had stayed in power, he wouldn’t have lasted forever. Autocracies can appear stable because they often have the same leader for years and years, but in the end, they all fall in one way or another. Ideally they go gently and gradually, as in Myanmar or South Africa, but when they don’t know when to let go, it’s near-impossible to get a happy ending. Change, in this case, is inevitable. The real question for the United States is one of how to react to events that one cannot fully control.

All of this brings us to Turkey, where recent protests spurred me to write this post. Over the past decade Turkey had, by in large, stood at safe removal from the discord in the rest of the region. With its “zero problem” foreign policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration, now in its twelfth year, harnessed political Islam and economic growth to form a stable and democratic government largely unconcerned with the tribulations in other nations. Of course, Turkey had always been different: it is populated by Turks instead of Arabs, has a longer democratic tradition, and its proximity to Europe meant it was often at some remove from the Middle Eastern lands it once ruled back when it was the Ottoman Empire. But with accession to the European Union stalled and looking less desirable after the financial crisis, the Turks turned their eyes back southward. Suddenly Erdogan had things to say about everything in the region, and ruffled some feathers in the U.S. and Israel. Part of this was out of necessity; the war in Syria has sent refugees spilling across its borders. But under the leadership of ambitious Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turks have started to posture as a regional leader, perhaps in search of a “Pax Ottomana,” with imperfect but stable Turkey as the ideal for the rest of the region.

The riots in Istanbul could unsettle that narrative, particularly if Erdogan continues to make a mess of these protests. But Turkey’s fall from grace has even deeper repercussions. Writes Daniel Larison:

Erdogan’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf response to the protests in Turkey is a continuation of how he has treated internal dissent for a long time, but it is also an expression of his assumption, reinforced by multiple general election victories, that he and his party really do speak for the majority of the country. Turkey has become more democratic in important respects over the last decade, but it has also become more illiberal, which is what can happen when populist majoritarian political forces displace an unrepresentative, less democratic system.

It is worth noting that the immediate catalyst for the riots was not an increased religious bent by the Erdogan government (though there certainly has been some of that); it was a plan to develop a public park in a manner the local residents did not like. It was not religious tyranny, but rather tyranny of the democratically-elected national government over the local. It is a classic case of state overreach by a leader who has probably been in power a bit too long, and who has lost sight of the things that got them into politics in the first place. Erdogan and his allies have now conflated themselves with Turkey, and have got their political agenda mixed up in a project of national greatness. It’s unfortunate, given the subtleties and successes of his government, and there is a small chance that Erdogan will recognize his folly. But the more likely outcome is a blow to the Turkish ideal for the rest of the Middle East. Even if the political consequences of the riots are minor, it will now be difficult for the Turks to pass themselves as some perfect fusion of democratic and Islamic ideals. While Erdogan may be able to atone for this error, he and his party will now be under much greater scrutiny, and the longer this goes on, the more Turkey looks more comparable to Egypt than to Europe.

This is not necessarily some great tragedy or lost opportunity. In fact, the Pax Ottomana dream was probably doomed from the start. The overarching theme here is one of foreign policy hubris. Just as Turkey cannot remake the Middle East in its image, the United States is largely powerless. Tearing down an unsavory regime is one thing, but when it comes to nation-building afterwards, it’s hard to think of any real success stories. Non-Westerners who try to slap Western institutions atop their own cultures don’t have a very good track record, either. It is also no less absurd for nations to sit around posturing as examples for others than it is for individual humans do so. Turkey is a fascinating country for a plethora of reasons, but it is not the answer to the Middle East’s democratic aspirations. It is merely Turkey, caught up in its own rich narrative that will continue to evolve of its own accord. It should be treated as such, not as some extension of Europe or the Middle East but as somewhere caught up somewhere between the pull of both, yet capable of writing its own future.

I’m not saying the situation is hopeless for widespread Middle Eastern liberal democracy; after all, those initial Arab Spring revolts did rise up organically, and many people in the region clearly want a political future that breaks from their political past. But they will have to decide their futures for themselves, a fact that can be both liberating and terrifying for the rest of the world. The result will most likely be convoluted, and different in every country, reflecting the nuances of each. We’ll have to learn to work with it, and instead of a Middle Eastern policy, the U.S. needs a Syria policy, an Egypt policy, a Turkey policy, and a policy for everyone else. If that sounds overwhelming, well, it should. The world is an overwhelming place, and a nation half the world away has few roads to safely insert itself into the internal affairs of countries in that part of the world. In many cases, it is probably best not to, obtuse and distant as that course of action may seem.