Egypt’s military coup against an elected president, cheered on by the country’s liberals, once again raises the nagging question: Is the Middle East somehow unsuited for democracy?
Two years after the Arab Spring, the answer is murky. But the ongoing drama in Egypt has made one thing clear. Unless religious and “secular” political parties are willing to cooperate, no Arab democracy can last long. Unless they can integrate both Islamist and non-Islamist parties into their political systems, Arab states will either sink into chaos or revert to authoritarian rule.
I don’t believe this draconian choice is inevitable, but it seems to be where things are headed in Egypt.
Egypt’s military has issued a road map that calls for new parliamentary and presidential elections next year, but it has also arrested former president Mohamed Morsi, and most leaders of his Freedom and Justice party (FJP), and it is now rounding up leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Despite Morsi’s many mistakes, it’s hard to envision how Egypt will transition back to democratic rule if the leaders of the best-organized political party remain in prison. Meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood is mobilizing tens of thousands on the streets — and says it won’t stop until Morsi is restored to power.
In Egypt, initially, it seemed that religious and nonreligious parties could coexist. Many of the youths who organized the first Tahrir Square revolt backed Morsi in the second round of presidential elections rather than his opponent, who was seen as the candidate of the military.
Moreover, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement did not call for the imposition of sharia law (although many of their secular critics feared that was their eventual intent). Indeed, Morsi’s refusal to create a consensus government — including all political trends — created deep fear and loathing among his liberal opponents.
So it’s not surprising they cheered his overthrow by the military, which they refused to label a “coup,” referring to it instead as a “recall” justified by the millions who turned out to protest on the first anniversary of his presidency.
“People asked for the recall process with their feet in Tahrir Square,” Egypt’s most prominent liberal, and now interim Vice President Mohammed ElBaradei, told the New York Times. “As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s deja vu all over again,’ but hopefully this time we will get it right.”
What ElBaradei didn’t say is that the anti-Islamist opposition already had 30 months “to get it right” and flubbed it.
Morsi’s opponents never organized coherent political parties or turned out any impressive leaders. They could have won the presidency or the parliament had they united behind one party or one candidate, but instead they left the field to the better organized Islamists. They’ve shown no recent signs they can do better; if the Islamists are permitted to run again next year, they will probably win.
What the liberals also don’t seem to recognize is that Islamist parties remain popular despite Morsi’s failures.
In a fascinating Pew Research poll released in mid-May, 52 percent of those queried gave a positive rating to Morsi’s FJP, while only 45 percent approved of the National Salvation Front, a loose umbrella organization of several liberal and leftist opposition groups.
Even if the FJP’s ratings have dropped since that poll was taken, it’s unlikely that the Salvation Front’s have risen. The poll shows that the public expects both Islamist and non-Islamist parties to run in elections. Forty-seven percent want religious parties to be part of government.
Moreover, the poll indicates that ordinary Egyptians care most about bread-and-butter issues: 83 percent list as their top concern improved economic conditions — vastly outpacing every other issue, including civic rights.
The message: For Egyptian democracy to work, it must include both Islamist and secular parties.
Excluding religious parties (as ousted ruler Hosni Mubarak did, and the military is doing now) will lead to continued chaos and low-grade civil war, which will undercut any economic recovery. Banning the Islamists will also require substantial repression by the military, and could drive them to take up weapons.
The best way for seculars to curb the Islamists’ powers is to organize and beat them at elections, which is clearly possible. How to convince the seculars and get the Islamists back in the political game is another question.
Bottom line: Egypt is not necessarily unsuited for democracy, but it’s hard to see how it will get there anytime soon.