Why Egypt's Coup Was A Grave Mistake

No one would want to live under Egypt’s brotherhood government, but the alternative isn’t better.
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No one would want to live under Egypt’s brotherhood government, but the alternative isn’t better.

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Lord knows, I would not want to live under a government run by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Their toxic combination of intolerance and ineptitude was not what many of the millions of Egyptians risked their lives for in the revolution two years ago. Consequently, the following statement is an easy one to make for a non-Egyptian who does not live there - last night’s military coup to overthrow the Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi was a grave mistake and may cause greater long-term damage than letting it continue to fail would have done.

The political charge sheet against the Brotherhood is long. A few random but significant examples are its abject failure to tackle Egypt’s economic crisis, attempting to impose a former terrorist as a governor on the Luxor region, whose substantial tourist industry was ravaged by his organisation’s cold-blooded murder of 62 people, mostly European tourists, in 1997, and forcing through a new Islamist-tinged Constitution over the heads of more secularly inclined Egyptians.

Some of these actions by the Brotherhood accentuated the fears of non-Islamists that the Brothers saw democracy as a “one man, one vote, one time” device and were using their electoral mandate to cement themselves in power indefinitely. The Brotherhood’s rule certainly provided enough evidence to support such concerns. But there were also signs that Morsi and his colleagues were susceptible to opposition pressure: the Luxor Governor appointment was withdrawn and even the new Constitution was less overtly Islamist than an unfettered Brotherhood would have produced. There are a number of reasons why the various opposition forces would have been better advised to continue exerting political pressure to influence specific policies and to press for early elections, rather than supporting a military coup to overthrow the government.

65% of the electorate supported the Brotherhood, or more hardline Islamist parties, at the 2011 parliamentary elections that brought their alliance to power. Even allowing for the fact that some of that support has been lost by the Brotherhood’s performance in government, the coup has just disenfranchised what is still probably the majority of Egyptians. How do you now convince those people that democracy works and is not just a flexible tool of the elites, middle classes and those who do not think like them? Frankly, they would be right to be sceptical because democracy does not work if one part of the political spectrum can call on a military coup when their opponents are in power.

Worse still, a minority of those newly disenfranchised, disillusioned people will now be more susceptible to the call of the violent extremist groups that have previously plagued Egypt.

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In a Machiavellian sort of way, the coup also lets the Brotherhood off the hook. For decades under Mubarak’s dictatorship and its predecessors, the Brotherhood thrived semi-underground by providing public services to the poor masses that the state neglected. This allowed it to build up a simplistic but powerful image of being an incorruptible force that could magically solve all problems. Of course, the reality of running a country is more complex than that. The Brotherhood’s manifest failures in office were rapidly eroding the aura of magic for ever and showing it to be just another political party. Overthrowing the Brotherhood’s government before that process was complete will once again allow the Brothers to portray themselves as the martyred voice of the masses who are oppressed by the corrupt elites - only more strongly than ever before.

The military top brass and the civilian allies they have co-opted, such as the interim President, Adli Mansour, claim that they intend only to be neutral arbiters until a new civilian administration can be elected. One hopes that this is true but past history gives cause for concern. Egypt was ruled by military-backed dictators from 1952 to 2011. Even when the last of them, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by the popular revolt two years ago, it still required an almighty effort by the people to get rid of the “SCAF” military junta that took over in the aftermath. By supporting the return of the military and their “deep state” allies from the previous regime, the anti-Islamist parties and protestors risk handing the country back to the very people they fought so bravely to overthrow in 2011 and who caused most of the its current problems in the first place.

It should also be remembered that one of the main reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood was able to win all of the recent democratic elections and push through much of its agenda in government was the inability of the liberal, leftist and other secular forces to form coherent parties presenting popular policy programmes. These movements already proved that they can get millions of people on to the streets. But it is not clear how doing it all over again and supporting a military coup will help them to be any more effective when, or, more worryingly, if, it comes to fresh elections.

In short, the desire of so many Egyptians to rid themselves of the Muslim Brotherhood government is entirely understandable. But a better opposition strategy for the long-term future would have been to let the Brothers discredit themselves for a bit longer, then beat them in an election.