The trouble with a ‘coup for democracy’

Sumita Pahwa writes: Egyptians are fiercely divided on whether the recent army intervention to depose the increasingly unpopular president Morsi was a step forward or backward for democracy. Those who flooded Tahrir Square to cheer a ‘second revolution’ argued that the Morsi-led government may have been elected but that it had lost legitimacy with its exclusionist, illiberal exercise of power. The Brothers had stoked fears of electoral authoritarianism in the past year: their demonstration of bad faith in going back on assurances that Morsi would appoint a consensus cabinet including opposition figures, their signalling of hegemonic intent in trying to circumvent the courts with constitutional declarations, in attempting to stack institutions of state with loyalists and most importantly in pushing through a narrowly partisan constitution against the protests of the non-Islamist opposition, and their willingness to clamp down on civil society by punishing critical voices and tarring NGOs as foreign agents, revived old fears that Islamists merely saw elections as a means to an illiberal end.

Yet while a military intervention offers a chance to start over, it also entrenches anti-democratic norms and incentives in the following ways:

1) By allowing the military to cast the deciding ballot in political deadlocks, and to determine what the “voice of the people” is and to execute “the popular will,” this intervention reduces the incentive for parties to invest in electoral and political organization and to woo the army instead. This keeps praetorianism going instead of encouraging all political actors to respect democracy as the only game in town.

2) This also reduces pressure on all actors to negotiate compromises and encourages them to use protest rather than elections as a path to achieve political change. The MB-led government’s refusal to acknowledge just how fragile a mandate it had and to offer their critics and more sceptical allies channels for ongoing input and feedback was the first step in this direction: by not channeling opposition institutionally, they left anti-system protest politics as the only effective tool for the opposition. But the opposition was also largely unconvinced of the importance of party organization, seeing it as a dreary process that was stacked against them to begin with. The lesson of military intervention is: if you don’t like your government, wait till you can overthrow it. [Continue reading…]

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