In Egypt, Liberal Hypocrisy Can Kill Democracy

The Muslim Brotherhood’s forced ouster in Egypt is a turning point in the political evolution of the Arab world. The Brotherhood’s military and civilian opponents would prefer to put this difficult chapter to end quickly, and to see the Brotherhood experiment as a mere footnote in Egyptian history. More likely, however, the increasingly violent crackdown on the party and its supporters will symbolize the derailing of a critical experiment in fair and Arab participatory politics. Secular liberals’ support for it is hypocritical and misguided. Rather than advancing their agenda, it will plunge Egypt back into oppressive military rule and Islamist radicalization.

Predictably, the military is anxious to break the Muslim Brotherhood politically and reaffirm its control over Egyptian politics. Since the military has for decades been the backbone of an autocratic regime, through which it has also built an economic empire, its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is consistent with its own values and interests. There is little point in reiterating criticisms of sixty years of disastrous military rule in Egypt. The complicity of the Muslim Brotherhood’s civilian opponents in the coup deserves more attention however, as it is more troubling and ill-boding for the region.

In its short time in power, the Muslim Brotherhood obviously made political and economic mistakes. Not all of them are the fault of the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi, who inherited a broken economy, dysfunctional security forces, and a restless and aggrieved population. Any post-revolution Egyptian leadership would have faced the same challenges, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s political immaturity, intolerance, and overconfidence led to errors for which it does deserve blame. Some of them—such as suspending the constitution—were serious, and all of them contributed to a growing public perception that the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to deliver on the core promises of the Egyptian revolution: economic prosperity and political participation and accountability.

Politics is a messy practice. Because it involves tackling economic issues with scarce resources, and working with parties with different values and interests, it is also an inherently unsatisfying one. In any political system democratic or otherwise, there is an ever-present temptation to eliminate one’s political opponents. Citizens of a mature democracy understand that its greatest value lies not in the specific political outcomes it produces—people will always disagree about what these ought to be. Rather, democracy is precious because it is the least harmful system through which to reconcile different ideas surrounding the public good and manage the inevitable disappointments that arise on the way.

The forced ouster of a democratically elected leadership, whatever its flaws, clearly violates the principles Egyptian liberals claim to uphold. Muslim Brotherhood opponents believe (or hope) that having dealt with the messy business of deposing it, jailing its leadership, and cracking down on its supporters, the state can resume its march towards liberal democracy. But by depriving the Muslim Brotherhood of what it sees as a well-deserved and hard-earned chance to govern, its opponents showed that their grievances take precedence over the rule of law and political process. This is the story of democracy’s violators throughout modern history—including the Egyptian military, which the anti-Morsi crowds have now reaffirmed as the key political player in Egypt.

The Egyptian military repeatedly denies mounting a coup, claiming it was implementing the popular will. Its popularity, however, has no bearing on whether Morsi’s removal was a coup. For Egyptians to claim otherwise indicates emotion trumping political sense at best, and intellectual dishonesty and political immaturity at worst. Incidentally, the Muslim Brotherhood also invokes the ‘will of the people’ to defend its right to govern, arguably with greater justification since it was expressed through the institutionalized political process of elections.

Worse still, the military later called on Egyptians to demonstrate in support of a security crackdown on a recalcitrant Muslim Brotherhood. This signaled that security forces need popular approval to perform their claimed duty, and that popular endorsement justifies state violence against Egyptian citizens. All of this should deeply trouble Egyptian and other Arab citizens, who are all too familiar with security forces invoking the popular will to kill opponents and suffocate political life.

It is true that political change is difficult, and that democratic revolutions take time to yield results. The institutionalization of participatory politics in Europe was a bloody, centuries-long affair. But it is also true that success is far from guaranteed, and that the early stages of political transitions are critical. There is a path-dependency to political development, through which early events profoundly shape future ones. Syria and Iraq both experimented with participatory politics in the early twentieth-century, long before the Arab Spring, but early setbacks deeply discredited democracy and led to decades of despotism. Syria may or may not be emerging from its dark ages, and Iraq’s nightmare continues.

Aside from its hypocrisy, secular liberal support for the crackdown is therefore also unwise, and jeopardizes the goals and achievements of the 2011 revolution. It emboldens the military-security apparatus to eliminate future opponents, sets a precedent for violence against political rivals, and sadly indicates that not enough has changed in Arab political life over the past two years. The message of the coup in Egypt is that political participation is conditional on the blessing of the military and a fickle, ill-defined popular will. Arab Islamists and liberals alike will take note, as will the dictators they have fought so hard to overthrow. Muslim Brotherhood opponents may draw temporary satisfaction from its ouster but they have made a mistake, and Arab citizens will pay the price. 

Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Flickr user Darla Hueske