Like the Nile River of old, the initial flood of comment and analysis on Egypt’s second revolution in three years has subsided. Perhaps now it would be helpful to closely examine the key assumption behind what has happened. In the scores of editorials and first hand reports, one statement is endlessly repeated. Made up of just three words, it is repeated so often that it seems to be fixed in the code of Egyptian observers’ computer programs. The words are “democratically elected government,” referring of course to Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power.
The narrative coming from the world’s press is that the second revolution and military coup in Egypt may be understandable and perhaps inevitable, but it is a tragedy. Arab democracy, it is claimed, has potentially suffered a fatal setback. It is only in this context that the narrative allows for some of the factual elements to be aired: Morsi’s incompetence in failing to deliver a better economy. Hijacking governmental processes and making tone deaf appointments to governorships. Reconfiguring the constitutional assembly with Brotherhood cronies.
The rise out of nowhere of five anti-Morsi friends who started the “Tamarrod” (rebellion) movement at a Cairo coffee shop just a few months ago and the subsequent twenty-two million “get out, Morsi” petition signers it was able to muster up seems to have been enabled by Facebook and Twitter groups rather than any of the traditional opposition movements. But why would Egyptians of all stripes and in such numbers want to choke off their first taste of democracy? Why would they seemingly want to revert to the dysfunctional past of military coups and generals in uniform making decrees and suspending constitutions?
The reason may lie in the fact that the vast majority of politically aware Egyptians did not believe that Morsi and the Brotherhood were democratically elected. His election was to democracy what a shotgun wedding is to the institution of marriage.
A very brief bit of history will explain why this is the case. Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist for almost thirty years using a decree of “emergency powers.” This allowed for the suppression of all dissent and political activity that was not state approved. Using the cover of the mosque and the playbook of the Koran, the Muslim Brotherhood crafted a hybrid social and political opposition movement. Because it used these covers, it was impossible to eliminate. Instead Mubarak co-opted it into a useful opposition, one with which he could threaten his Western backers. If the Brotherhood got too aggressive he simply jailed its leaders and shut off the microphones of its imams in the mosques. There were no other representational parties with any differing agenda or platforms. Mubarak appointed all the political actors. Egyptians never had a taste of democracy and representational politics.
When Mubarak was overthrown during the Arab Spring the only viable, organized and familiar political opposition group in sight was the Brotherhood. Yes, the Salafists were right behind, but they were never a political movement. Rather, they were a powerful religious movement used as puppets to export the Saudi/Wahhabi brand of Islam. The Egyptian liberals, secularists and professional and educated classes had no voice. They hastily arrayed around Mohammed ElBaradei, but creating a party from scratch was basically impossible.
When the Egyptian military declared the need for elections a few months after the fall of Mubarak there was no one as ready to run as the Brotherhood. In spite of their immense advantage they only got 52% of the vote. The platform they ran on was to be inclusive and concentrate on the economy and jobs. But in an echo of our own Republican party (and their abortion and same-sex marriage obsession), once in office all they seemed to care about was social issues and implementing Shariah law. The handling of the crucially needed IMF loan, still underreported, says it all. The Koran prohibits the payment of interest, so the loan was never negotiated because the Brotherhood had to craft some absurd finagle about how to pay the IMF back without calling the payment interest. Morsi, to echo Marie Antoinette, could have said “let them eat principle.”
This incompetence in the face of the famed and fabled “Arab street” was proof that the Brotherhood was not a democratically elected government at all. Instead it was an opportunist remnant of the corrupt and illegitimate Mubarak government. Had the military set elections for two or three years later, allowing for real political parties to get organized, it is doubtful the Brotherhood would have won. If one can see this logic and imagine oneself as an Egyptian who desperately needs a better-governed country and a better life, throwing the Brotherhood out is not trampling on democracy but trying to build one in the first place.
If the Egyptians can catch a break and if General el-Sisi can deliver a modicum of stability to the country, they have an outside chance of having a free and fair election. The Brotherhood can be a party too, but not one with the prime mover advantage of having been the opposition shills for the Mubarak regime. Let’s hope that these proud and ancient people can find their way to democracy and freedom. But first let the Western reporters and commentators stop promoting the idea that the Brotherhood was “democratically elected.” It was not.