Thursday, 4 July 2013

Democracy, Army Style

So the Egyptian military has overthrown the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Morsi, arrested the President and many of his senior supporters, suspended the constitution and taken control of the state, supposedly in response to the cries of the people whose revolution has been betrayed by the government.

I guess this is what counts as complicated. Morsi's government was democratically elected, but wasn't behaving in a particularly democratic way, if like me you believe that democracy is more than elections allowing the majority to impose its will on minorities. It's true, too, that the Morsi government was very keen on locking up journalists and very poor at fixing the economy. One of its lesser-remarked failures, however, was its total refusal to deal with the army's massive economic role: it apparently controls at least 15% of the economy through a network of businesses, and certainly wasn't going to countenance the suggestion that armies are the servants of the people embodied in the state.

The other problem with the Egyptian army is that it's a creation and client not of the Egyptian people, but of the United States, which provides it with massive amounts of money and materiel. As usual, the Western powers talk a lot about democracy but never, ever, mean it, particularly with regard to the Arab and Eastern worlds. What the West wanted in years gone by was anti-communist dictatorships which kept the oil flowing to the West and stopped the Arab man in the street from declaring all-out war on Israel. The anti-communist bit has been dropped but the rest remains central to global realpolitik. In pursuit of these aims, the democratic impulses of the East, the rights of women, religious minorities and ethnic minorities have been deliberately ignored. Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi (sometimes), Assad and many others were the beneficiaries of a policy which traded human rights for geopolitical aims. I remember Tony Blair making a stirring speech about bringing democracy to the East, as part of the build-up to war. So I wrote to my MP asking when we started bombing Saudi Arabia, which had a far worse human rights and democratic record than Iraq (it still does). The reply was a contemptuous brush-off.

So anyway, my feeling is that the Western states are very happy to see this coup. They'll have advised the Egyptian army to employ some rudimentary PR: a few populist gestures here and there, some journalists released, some bread subsidies, perhaps unmask a few convenient Islamist Terrorist Plots so it looks like the aims of the Egyptian street and that of the army are aligned, but the shine will tarnish pretty quickly. The army doesn't want democracy for the same reasons as the West: it assumes that Egyptians are religious zealots, and it doesn't want to destabilise the cosy global order, or lose its privileges.

So I think the people of Egypt are deluded if they see an army coup as a necessary stage in the pursuit of democracy. Morsi was a bad president but he wasn't a dictator. The demonstrators should sup with a very long spoon: supporting a coup against someone you don't like tacitly authorises the next coup, which might be against someone you do like.

Ask yourself this: how many times have military coups lead to democratic governments? I can think of very few indeed, though I'm hoping that you can provide some more. The oldest example is one that didn't really happen. In the aftermath of what's erroneously called the English Civil War, the Army began to feel that the Parliamentary leadership wasn't nearly radical enough (they'd even tried to settle with Charles I rather than overthrow the monarchy) , and in fact wanted to establish a Republic of the Squirearchy rather than a true, levelled democracy. They held a series of debates (including the Putney Debates), published pamphlets and proposals, and moved menacingly close to London, until Charles I's escape, coupled with a Cromwellian crackdown and the payment of wage arrears, closed down the rebellion, very sadly in my view.

The only recent democratic military coup was the Carnation Revolution of April 25th 1974, in which the Portuguese Army, radicalised by a cadre of leftwing, anti-colonial officers, peacefully overthrew the 40-year dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, Portugal's manifestation of Francoist fascism. The people flooded the streets in support of the Army, symbolised by handing them red carnations (for communism), and the Secret Police's resistance was quickly ended. Democracy was established within two years and Portugal's colonies set free.

Is this the glorious future which awaits Egypt? Don't hold your breath.

1 comment:

Cath Andrews said...

I think the history of Latin America makes it very clear that an institutionalised army can never be a "democratic tool for the people".
The Egyptian Army like the LA ones before it, is setting itself up as the referee of politics. A supreme authority to which any civilian government is beholden. History almost certainly suggests that Egyot is not headed for stable democratic government. In fact, it suggests quite clearly that this kind of government can only be achieved once the army is weakened, its generals stripped of all political influence and its institution placed at the service of the state.