(Image credit: Morguefile)
"Democracy is more than just elections."
This should be the catchphrase for the continuous convolutions in Egypt. It has been repeated in one form or another by everyone from President Obama to Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh. It simultaneoulsy captures what is wrong and what is right with ongoing rollercoaster of politics in Egypt.
Here is what that roller coaster looks like from afar:
A creaking car holding a creaking dictator slowly inches to the top of the first incline. Crowds cheer as it nears the precipice and then plunges over. It carreens to the bottom, where it is surrounded by the military. The military throws the dictator out and occupies the car in his place.
The car climbs again, crowds cheering, to the next incline. By the time it plunges over, the military has been joined by a new face in a new car. This time, when the momentum has died, the crowd steps back and silently watches the military disembark. The car holding the new leader begins to move again.
The car creaks its way to an even greater height than before as the noise from the crowd increases. This time it pauses at the top, teetering, its occupant staring down at the crowd. When it finally plunges back to earth, it is once again met by the military. They pull the new leader out of the car and get in themselves.
The car starts to climb the hill again...
Western commentators are calling the ouster of Egypt's Morsi a military coup. That is correct in a strictly academic way. But I don't think it tells the whole story.
In many ways, Morsi was essentially conducting a coup himself. Having won Egypt's first and only election in 5,000 years, he promptly set about making sure it would be the country's last.
He wasn't open about this, of course. But look at his actions:
In November, 2012, Morsi granted himself sweeping powers, effectively placing himself above the law:
Mr Morsi has decreed that all decisions he has made since coming into office, and all decisions he will make until a new constitution is passed, will not be subject to appeal or review by any court.
He has also ordered that no court can dissolve the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly which is now drafting a new constitution.
And he gave the body - which was due to issue a draft constitution in December - two extra months to come up with a charter, that will then be put to a referendum.
Morsi used those powers to hand the drafting of a new constitution over to his Islamist allies:
...The opposition questioned its legitimacy, arguing it passed with a very low turnout of around 33 percent and without a national consensus. They say the charter restricts freedoms, ignores rights of minorities and women and enshrines Islamic rule...
... "The president is talking to himself," said Hussein Abdel-Ghani, a leading figure in the group told a press conference after Morsi's speech. He pointed out that most of the representatives in that dialogue are either Islamist parties or "cardboard" opposition, likening it to old attempts by Mubarak's regime to appear to be reaching out to the opposition.
Human Rights Watch has also expressed deep concerns about the constitution, both online and in a letter to the Egyptian government:
The constitution drafting process has been extremely contentious, and a number of assembly members resigned in protest over what they said was the failure of the dominant Islamist factions to compromise on key issues, including the place of religion in affairs of state. The decision comes on the heels of President Mohamed Morsy’s controversial November 22 Constitutional Declaration immunizing his decrees from judicial review.
Morsi's attack on democratic ideals also included a show-trial of 43 NGO workers after shutting down their organizations and confiscating their assets:
Of the defendants, 27 foreigners were sentenced to five years prison in absentia. Five foreigners were sentenced to two years, including an American who is still in Egypt. Eleven Egyptians received a one-year suspended sentence and an EGP 1000 fine.
The court also ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs and the seizure of their assets...
Nancy Okail, director of Egypt programmes at Freedom House and one of the convicted defendants, said: “President [Mohamed] Morsi’s government has continued [former president Hosni] Mubarak’s tactics of using threats, intimidation, and the arbitrary exercise of government power to suppress free expression and association in Egypt.”
Okail added: “How can the international community believe [Morsi] is committed to democracy when he has shut down groups and jailed staff who were helping Egyptians participate in shaping their country’s future?”
Perhaps he did not want Egyptians to participate in shaping their future. It appears he preferred to shape it himself.
Michael Weiss of Now describes Morsi's policies as "the unsmiling transformation of Egypt into Ikhwanistan" which "took precedence over food and fuel shortages and sweeping unemployment." He also describes the Obama administration's paralysis in the face of the "the steady, Brotherhood-led erosion of civil liberties and human rights in Egypt."
Taken altogether, Morsi's actions could be said to constitute a coup in themselves. With no history of democratic governance and no legally recognized institutions willing to protect their rights, it's not surprizing that Egyptians once again turned to the military.
As Big Pharaoh puts it:
Yes, it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck. Yes it is a coup. However, it is a “coup but”. It is a coup supported by the largest gathering of Egyptians in human history. I am an Egyptian, I have been living here for all my life and I’ve never seen before what I saw this week. I have been involved in almost every major demonstration since the 2011 revolution, what I saw this week is staggering. The numbers, especially on June 30th, far exceeded the numbers of who participated in the January revolution to oust Mubarak. People from all walks of Egyptian life thronged squares and streets even if no demonstrations were called for (take a look at this video shot by army helicopters on June30). If you call this a coup without adding the “but” then you’re not seeing the full picture at all. After seeing the magnitude of the demonstrations and their geographical reach, I can comfortably conclude that June 30 and the days that followed reflected what the majority of Egyptians wanted.
But now the military must be trusted to help create whatever it was that the majority of Egyptians wanted. And help create it in an less and less stable Egypt.
As I watch the roller coaster car edge up to the next peak, I'm wishful but not hopeful.