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The Dangerous Message of the Coup in Egypt: Political Islam has no Place in Democracy

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The democratically elected but now deposed President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, seems to have managed in the twelve months he was in power to upset a lot of people on all sides of the political divides. This culminated in mass demonstrations that had not been seen since the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian Defence Minister, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, then decided that it is the responsibility of the army to unseat the President. When the news of the coup d’état was announced, the demonstrating masses went into raptures.

The sad irony here is that the demonstrators claimed that Morsi was abusing his powers yet they were happy for the army to depose the president who had won an election that was widely considered fair. A military general from the old times of Mubarak — a background that should say something about his concept of democracy — decided that the first democratically elected President of Egypt should go one year after his election. Those who sang and danced at the news of the military coup were celebrating the slaughter of democracy by the military. Their message is as simple as this: we are having a democracy, but only when it works for us. When it does not, we declared it to be false, and that only what we want amounts to democracy.

But of course, there is the obvious problem that this was a military coup. Having sold themselves as democratic yet supported the coup, opposition politicians had to work hard, using every argument they can think of to describe what happened as anything but what it really is: a military coup. What Mori’s opponents have been saying to deny the simple and obvious is nothing short of farcical and comical.

There is a lot of naivety in not expecting the first democratic President not to make mistakes, or even many of them. Democracy is not a pill that an individual or a people swallow and they become democratic. It is a culture and institutions. These do not develop overnight. A country does not become fully democratic because a dictator is overthrown by a popular uprising and a fair election brings in a new leader. This is the fact that the coup d’état and the broad support it has received have revealed.

Significantly, the army’s did not stop at deposing Morsi. They arrested him and other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood party that he belongs to and issued arrest warrants for hundreds of other leaders of the Brotherhood. This is as clear as it could be that the problem that the army had was not only with President Morsi, but with all of the political movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Needless to say, the army will easily find any number of charges they need against those people.

This takes me to the most significant and dangerous message of what the Egyptian army and those who supported it did: Political Islam has no place in democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has pursued non-violent politics for three decades now. It has every right to participate in the political life in Egypt. To deny it that right, not least after it won a fair election, is to tell it and all those who pursue an Islamic political agenda that democracy is not for them. In other words, they have to resort to violence to achieve their goals. This is the ultimate tragedy of what happened in Egypt.

This is very similar to what happened in Algeria in 1991. When the Islamic Salvation Front won the election, the army moved quickly to cancel the electoral process, imprison the leaders of that party, and choose a president. Political commentators have disagreed on whether what happened in Egypt could end up in the kind of violence that swept Algeria for years. But it is not difficult to see how and why Islamists can conclude from what happened in Egypt that they would not be given a fair chance in a democratic system.

This is why world leaders should come out and condemn the military coup in Egypt. Those who have been vocal about the “terrorism” committed in the name of Islam should particularly send a clear and strong message that this coup is unacceptable. The failure to do so would suggest that those critics have a problem with political Islam itself. This is how Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister, showed he has no time for the involvement of an Islamic party in a democratic process. He approved of the military coup, citing the popular demonstrations. This is the same person who started, with another fundamentalist, George W. Bush, the Iraq war in 2003 despite huge public opposition, including the biggest public demonstration that the UK had ever witnessed. Barack Obama, as well as other world leaders, have not made the same mistake of supporting the coup, by they have failed to condemn it either. It is not surprising that dictators in the Arab world have raced to send their blessings to the new regime. Only the African Union has shown courage, suspending Egypt’s membership.

I disagree with a lot of what Islamic political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, aim to achieve. This is mainly due to fundamental differences I have with the common understanding of Shari’a and Islamic law in general and its role in the life of the individual and society. I have discussed my interpretation of the concept of Islamic law according to the Qur’an in detail in Chapter 14 of my book Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law. However, democracy means that those who win an election should be allowed to govern. Opposition may want to depose a government before the end of its term, but that must never be through the use of violence, including the army.

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3 thoughts on “The Dangerous Message of the Coup in Egypt: Political Islam has no Place in Democracy

  1. Considering Morsi’s unpopularity and the wide protests against him, I don’t think Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi had a any choice. Last time I went to Egypt, the general atmosphere of the people was deep hatred and mistrust of the man whom they perceived wanted to become a dictator like his predecessor (his notorious constitutional declaration, the way he rushed the constitution without consensus, his appointment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in key positions, and his detaining journalists).

    Ideally Morsi should have finished his four years, and I blame the Egyptian people for that. I also think the way the National Salvation Front behaved, by resorting to boycott as the solution to resolving the country’s political problems instead of making an effort to participate in the political process to also be wrong.

    However, Morsi did not behave intelligently from the start – if he had neither the protesters nor the National Salvation Front would have taken such drastic measures against him had he been more responsible. The Egyptian people voted for him and should have waited 4 years until he finished his term. The Egyptian people knew exactly what they were doing when they went ahead and cast their vote in the ballot box. It is not Sisi’s fault that so many Egyptians then changed their mind and went to the street to protest against Morsi. Sisi was put in a position where he had to resolve the crisis in the best way he could, dealing with a stubborn Mubarak-like president. Sisi also gets credit for handing over power to Adly Mansour, a civilian, and for going according to the now defunct constitution. Sisi handled the situation as best as he could, refraining to seize power for himself and for the armed forces, knowing that this was not the best course of action after witnessing what happened to his predecessor, Field Marshal Tantawi.

    Sisi privately approached Morsi to do something to appease the protesters and he did nothing. In his last speech (like Mubarak before him) he remained defiant. Now I am not sympathetic with the Egyptian people – in the first round of elections when there were about 10 candidates presenting themselves, he got the most votes. For the parliamentary elections, Egyptians voted for the MB. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over the country they approved of the constitution and did not vote “no” so a new constitution would be drafted to guarantee democracy for the country and for the next president to know exactly what his responsibilities would be when he would come to power. The Egyptians have a track-record for casting the wrong vote, and frankly speaking they deserve what they got themselves into. As a people they need to bear the consequences of their own actions.

    Morsi, out of sheer decency and to avoid future bloodshed, should have said: “I call for early elections.” He could have presented himself for re-election, or the MB could have selected another candidate. But he didn’t. Sis gave Morsi his chance to do the noble thing, but he remained defiant and did not act as a humble leader. After being deposed he called for his supporters to defend him, and even though the claim was to do it peacefully, he knew very well that the outcome would turn violent. Morsi was essentially calling for what could become a civil war, all this so he and the MB could remain in power. For someone claiming to have memorized the Qur’an and to be a man of God, Morsi has complete and utter disdain for human life and is someone who I have no respect for and who I believe gets everything he deserves. He is not a man of God, but man who seeks worldly gains (duniya) whi has made a mockery and perverted Islam’s teaching.

    On a final note I never voted for Morsi, nor do I particularly like him, but I did wish he would finish his 4 year term. When he came to power many people just hated him out of sheer prejudice, because he has a beard and is affiliated with the MB. On the contrary I believed that he should be given a chance, and at the beginning, I was in favour of him. In his first speech he said that he was the president of all Egyptians, that he was going to respect international treaties, and that he was going to build a democratic institutions and respect human rights. Before he became president, he said how Christians should have more rights in the country, and there were rumours that a Christian would be selected as Vice-President, something unprecedented before. He also got a lot of credit when he removed Tantawi, and people believed that he had done so to build a democratic country free of military rule. He claimed that he did not seek power, and that if he ever does wrong or that the people do not want him, he would step down. In the end, the Egyptian people felt all this was empty rhetoric.

    Perhaps a good analogy is the late King Farouk. When the revolution happened in 1952, a fraction of the military could have intervened to defend him. The King said that he would rather be deposed from his throne than be responsible for the blood of Egyptians being spilled. King Farouk knew he was unpopular, and probably knew that he had made mistakes. But he was also a man of integrity who harboured decency and self-respect, and just left. Unlike King Farouk, Morsi has no decency and no integrity.

  2. Thank you Hamada for your detailed reply. 

    You say that Sisi had no choice but to do what he did. The point I am making is that what he did should not be an option for him in the first place. This is the point about democracy and about the whole process. The chief of the army simply cannot decide to remove an elected President. 

    This is a Mubarak general, and he is behaving exactly like that. His mindset shows in his other actions. He has imprisoned Morsi and other leaders, has issued arrest warrants for hundreds more, and intends to put them on trial. We surely know the outcome of those trials! 

    And what about closing all those Islamic TV stations? How about raiding Al-Jazeera office and detaining its staff? This is a typical behavior of military dictatorships that we have seen over and over again in so many countries. 

    Look at his latest actions today as an absolute ruler who is above the law. After the massacre of tens of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators and wounding hundreds by the army, politicians from all sides, including those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, came out condemning what happened and asking for an investigation. Yet Sisi has already made an army spokesman exonerate the army and blame attackers from among the demonstrators. Apparently, a massacre of this scale is not even worth an investigation. I am sure Morsi made all kinds of mistakes and would have made more, but he would not have shown this complete discard for human life and sense of being above the law. 

    If what Sisi did was to spare Egypt chaos, then I am not sure what to call what we are seeing now. The Muslim Brotherhood has every right to feel that it is being targeted as a movement. This is the only explanation of this crackdown on its leaders. 

    I do not think it is fair to accuse Morsi of calling for violence even when he asks his followers to be peaceful. Violence had already started by opposition protestors, including a fatal attack on an office of his party. Sisi surely did not expect his removal of Morsi and persecution of his followers would be meekly accepted by them, so he must be held responsible for all the resulting violence and bloodshed. 

    The concept of “casting the wrong vote” is a contradiction in terms. Democracy means giving people the right to make a decision, and as is the case with any decision making process, the decision maker has to take responsibility for their decision. 

    I appreciate that you feel strongly that Morsi messed up and I know he made a lot of mistakes. But there is so much emphasis on him as a person and neglect of the environment and institutions he was working within. It is not as if the election changed the Egyptians and Egyptian institutions overnight to be aligned with democracy. This never happened in history and won’t happen. Any President would have found his work cut out in a country where, for instance, the judicial system belonged to the pre-democracy era and where the army does not want to understand that an army in a democracy is not the same army that serves a dictatorship. 

    I pray that Egypt will not disintegrate into further chaos and bloodshed. But the army has to change and join the new Egypt. At least, they should release Morsi and stop all persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, all those who want democracy have to accept that it is a process in which some lose and some win. Also, people need to understand that a new democracy is not a panacea that solves all problems overnight, and that winning a democratic election does not make the winner a superman.

  3. Thank you dr. Louay your detailed reply.
    Thank you Hamada.
    Hamada doesn’t know more as he doesn’t live in it.
    If you had lived in Cairo last year you’d have changed your ideas.
    Back to see and think.
    Thank you again dr. Louay

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