Egypt’s top military commander, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, went on the air Sunday to defend the army’s decision to oust Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, on July 3.
“The armed forces remained committed to what it considered the legitimacy of the ballot box until this presumed legitimacy moved against its own purpose,” General el-Sisi said. “The Egyptian people were concerned that the tools of the state could be used against them. The armed forces had to make a choice, seeing the danger of deepened polarization.”
The general said that the military had offered Mr. Morsi the option of a referendum on whether he should stay in power, but that the deeply unpopular president had refused.
Painful as it was to see the democratic process interrupted so soon after the revolution that overthrew the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the military’s action was necessary. At its most blatant level, there was no way that Mr. Morsi and his affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood were going to leave power willingly, no matter the severity of the civil discontent over the president’s efforts to consolidate his power while mismanaging major problems from fuel shortages to rising inflation.
When has an Islamist government, however democratically elected, ever ceded power to non-Islamists through a functional political process? Is democracy about periodically displacing absolute power by force or about laying the foundations for its peaceful rotation, including mechanisms not only for transparency in governance but also for the protection of women and religious minorities?
Instead of reaching out to other parties and trying to effectively govern, the Brotherhood focused on consolidating its power, by forcing out competent national administrators and members of local government councils and replacing them with its own cronies and allies. Last December, the Morsi regime showed no hesitation as its Islamist supporters attacked protesters camped outside the presidential palace. The government was happy to suppress protest as long as the army stood aside.
In Egypt, the army has been seen as the “arm of the people” since long before the 1952 coup that led to the establishment of Egypt’s first republic in 1953. Like Mr. Mubarak, his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat, drew their authority less from political competence than from their belonging to the military establishment.
Like it or not, the military is the core of Egypt’s deeply bureaucratic state apparatus. But the army, always a major political player, has seldom interfered with politics unless forced to. Just as the army pushed out Mr. Mubarak in 2011, so it forced out Mr. Morsi when it seemed like the Egyptian state might very well cease to exist. At risk were not only basic amenities but also control of the borders, notably with the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip, and diplomatic failures regarding Ethiopia’s plans to build a new dam on the Nile, Egypt’s long-term water supply.
The Brotherhood managed to antagonize every arm of the state as well as much of the business sector. In seeking office, it sold subsidized foodstuffs and fuel at reduced prices, or distributed them free of charge. It seemed clueless as power cuts and gas shortages became the norm.
The wiles and guile of Islamic fundamentalism were given free reign as never before, threatening not only republican norms but the spiritual wellbeing of the average moderate, and presumably pro-democracy, Sunni Muslim on the street. The legacy of the Morsi episode may sadly be that in the Middle East, democracy and political Islam “don’t mix.”
They don’t mix not only in theoretical terms — the Umma (or community of believers) vs. the modern nation state; the sect vs. the citizen; Islamic morality vs. individual liberties — but also because political Islam gives political cover to all that is undemocratic in an Arab society.
Under Mr. Morsi, jihadists blew up the export gas pipelines on the Sinai Peninsula with relative impunity. Indeed, when militants went so far as to abduct military personnel, Mr. Morsi expressed concern for both the abductors and abductees. (The kidnap victims were later released.) Members of unofficial Saudi-style religious police forces could kill a young man for taking a walk with his girlfriend. Women who did not wear the hijab could be subjected to discrimination and sexual harassment — not to mention having their hair forcibly cut with scissors on public transportation and in school. The despicable practice of child marriage threatened to resurge.
In the dysfunctional Parliament, Islamist members focused on such issues as legalizing female genital mutilation and banning the teaching of foreign languages in state schools.
A controversial Salafi preacher, Abu Islam, defaced a Christian Bible to make his sectarian point. (He was ordered to pay a fine.) Meanwhile, in southern Egypt, a Coptic Christian schoolteacher, Dimyana Abdel-Nour, was tried on trumped-up charges of attacking Islam in the classroom. She paid a much larger fine, and her case is still open.
A glaring example of the Brotherhood’s sectarianism occurred at a Syria Solidarity Conference convened by Mr. Morsi on June 15. What at first seemed like a fascist-style pro-Morsi rally quickly devolved into a hate-speech bonanza against the Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. A number of popular Wahhabi preachers, like Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, not only complained of Mr. Morsi’s earlier, tentative rapprochement with Iran but also frothed at the mouth as they openly identified the Shiites with all evil. Mr. Morsi may not have been directly responsible, but he did nothing to prevent it.
On June 23, a mini-pogrom took place in which Hassan Shehata, a leader of Egypt’s tiny homegrown Shiite community, was dragged through the streets in his village outside Cairo, and then killed, along with three of his followers. Not a peep from Mr. Morsi.
To say that the events of the past month cannot be described as a coup — contrary to the position of some Western democratically obsessed political observers — should in no way imply a pro-military position. The generals are not eager to govern directly and they fear Western censure (and the possible cessation of American military aid), as well as the Islamists’ continuing political power, as demonstrated by ongoing pro-Morsi protests. What happens next is an open question.
What is no longer an open question is how Washington’s role in propping up political Islam is more likely to result in the death and discontent of Muslims. The Obama administration, which has largely stayed on the sidelines as our crisis has unfolded, must recognize that Islamic fundamentalism will always be more of a problem than a solution.
By: Youssef Rakha, a writer, journalist and photographer