Democracy’s Fateful Choice in Egypt

Egypt’s “democracy movement” largely sided with the military in its brutal coup against an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. But that fateful choice suggests these “moderates” may not understand the grim history of such tradeoffs, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

There are a series of historical precedents that can give us insight into the problems now seen in Egypt. These precedents are from the West as well as the Middle East, relevant because the conflict in Egypt has modern structural qualities that are transcultural.

These qualities include: a traditional military caste allied to a reactionary police force, to a reactionary judiciary, and to “big business” elements; a middle class most of whose members have a stated aspiration for both stability and a democratic society; and a bete noire (dark beast) factor a fear shared by the first two groups of a third group.

In the European/U.S. context, this bete noire group is usually identified as a politically organized Left designated as Communist. In the context of the Middle East, this role is usually played by politically active Islamist organizations. In both cases the bete noire element may represent a significant portion of the population.

Here are two examples, one from the West and one from the Middle East, of how precedents involving these transcultural structural elements played themselves out. In both cases the consequences were horrific. After setting these out, we will see how these precedents shed light on the current Egyptian situation.

The Weimar Republic 1919

The Weimar Republic came into being in Germany at the end of World War I, when Germany had fallen into chaos. Due to pressure from the victorious Allies, the monarchical government collapsed and a new republican government, the Weimar Republic, came into being.

However, while the German monarch (the Kaiser) went into exile in the Netherlands, the old government’s authoritarian bureaucracies stayed behind. These included a reactionary military officer corps as well as an entrenched reactionary police and court system.

On the Left of the political spectrum was a strong Communist movement. In the middle were a number of parties of moderate democratic temperament, which soon formed the majority in the Weimar Republic’s Reichstag, or parliament.

In the chaotic conditions that prevailed, the Weimar leaders mistakenly assumed the loyalty of the bureaucracies of the monarchical era would transfer to the new democratic government. Thus they made no attempt to purge their reactionary elements. This turned out to be a fatal error.

It was also the case that the democratic government and most of its supporters (there were but few exceptions) feared the Left more than the Right. The reactionary bureaucracies hated the Left but also had no love for the democrats. Ultimately, the democratic parties acquiesced in the often extralegal and violent actions the reactionary Right took to destroy the Left. Once the Communists had been destroyed, the democratic forces, including the government itself, had no leverage against the armed and ascendant Right. Within a short time democracy was dead in Germany.

For our purposes, the important points to remember about the Weimar Republic are: Most of the German democrats, when confronted by a choice between a reactionary Right and the politically active Left chose a de facto alliance with the Right. Also, in the case of Weimar, the rightist reactionary mentality was already institutionalized in the army, police, and courts.

Some would say that this is the way things had to be to save Germany from Communism, which would have established its own harsh authoritarian system. However, this was never a necessary outcome and Germany’s democratic forces could have made other alliances than the one with the reactionary Right. Of course, that did not happen, so we will never know where such an alternative path would have led.

Algeria 1991

In December 1991, free multiparty elections were held in Algeria for the first time since the country had gained independence from France. The election was to be held in two rounds, but was never completed. The first round was won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and this same Islamist party was seen as the certain winner of the second round.

Because of that expectation, the Algerian military led by a rightist officer corps with no respect for democracy stepped in, canceled the election, and appointed its own “government.” The military also began arresting thousands of Islamists; so many that the jails could not hold them all, and internment camps were set up in the Sahara Desert.

This strategy of mass arrests effectively eliminated the moderate wing of the FIS and left the more violent and often brutal Islamists to fight an equally brutal and violent secular regime. Many who backed the military were known as les eradicateurs (the eradicators), those who refused all compromise with the Islamists and simply sought their eradication. What followed was a horrendous civil war and the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerians.

The Algerian military coup against the democratic process was supported by many of the Algerian middle class who saw themselves as Francophiles (that is, more culturally French than Algerian Arab). In principle they would have preferred a democracy, but not one that brought Islamists to power. If they had to choose between an Islamist democracy and a reactionary right-wing dictatorship, they would, with few exceptions, opt for the latter.

At the time some claimed that a free election won by moderate Islamists would not really result in democratic government. They claimed that the FIS would change the country’s constitution and then cancel all future elections the “one election, one time” phenomenon. However, while those who supported the coup asserted this, they did not know it would be so. And, because of the military dictatorship that resulted from the coup, new elections would not be held for 20 years.

Egypt 2013

Most Egyptians, religious and secular (the exceptions were the military officer corps, elements of the police and judiciary, and some of the business class), wanted the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak replaced by democracy. Using the tactic of mass demonstrations, both secular and Islamist organizations managed to get rid of the dictator in February 2011 and scare the military into allowing a process that led to free and fair elections.

Those elections were won by Muhammad Morsi, who was a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an array of Islamist legislative delegates. Morsi and his government began the process of creating a new constitution for the country that reflected the Islamic nature of their victory.

This was a work in progress and there may ultimately have been room for compromise, particularly as Morsi became aware of the strength of the secular opposition. It is estimated that some 54 percent of Egyptians would like to see democracy on the present Turkish model, “a secular republic currently being successfully ruled by moderate Islamists.”

We will never know if such an evolutionary direction was possible under Morsi. What many of the secular democrats of Egypt (transformed into the “Egyptian mainstream” by many media outlets) saw in his victory was not the potential of an evolutionary democratic process leading to the Turkish model, but rather the prelude to a quick emulation of Iran.

Almost immediately upon election, the Morsi government met resistance and sabotage. As had happened with the Weimar Republic, the new government inherited a court system, police establishment and military that were the creatures of the old authoritarian regime.

These bureaucracies had no loyalty to the Egypt’s elected government, as can be seen by the fact that the economic and internal security situation within the country immediately deteriorated. Artificial shortages of important goods, such as gasoline, appeared. The crime rate started to climb as the police presence on the streets became sparse. The legitimacy of the new government was repeatedly challenged and always through a court system full of judges appointed by the prior dictatorship.

Most importantly, the secular organizations (such as Tamaroud and the June 30 Movement) which had helped dislodge Mubarak now decided that they were unwilling to accept the results of a free election in which the wrong party had won. They convinced themselves, as had happened in Algeria, that an Islamist government would never allow another free and fair election. They did not know this to be the case, but fear made the assumption seem an inevitable truth.

A host of rationalizations followed: the entire Muslim Brotherhood has been characterized as a terrorist organization because some protesters attacked Christian churches and police stations, and the responsibility for hundreds of dead unarmed protesters has been laid at the feet of “armed Islamists” who first attacked soldiers who were just trying to keep order, and all those deaths are really the demonstrators’ fault because they did not disperse even though they knew the military would come and attack them, and the Morsi government, by definition theocratic in nature, had to be the death knell of democracy in Egypt.

Thus the secular democratic organizations of Egypt decided to support the brutal actions taken by reactionary military and police establishments to destroy not only the government, but also the bete noire of political Islam. With but too few exceptions, their followers cheered as the election was overturned, and they naively believed the assurances of the military leader, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, that after Morsi was done away with, the military would bring them “real” democracy (an idealistic 33-point liberal constitution was produced but never implemented).

In this way, the secular democratic groups, which helped bring down one dictatorship, provided cover for the return of the same sort of dictatorship with different faces. In doing so the Egyptian democrats helped open Pandora’s box. Following the Algerian model, the army swept in and arrested almost all the moderate leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This only opened space for more violent Islamist elements and began an erosion of the Brotherhood’s chain of command. Thus we saw the attacks on the Coptic churches, police stations, government buildings, and soldiers and police in the Sinai area. Despite this, the wonder is that the vast majority of Egyptian Islamists have stayed nonviolent even now. We do not know if this restraint will last.

Why would the democratic elements of society ally themselves with the reactionary Right? Why wouldn’t they see a dictatorship of the Right as their bete noire? The reason may have to do with a long period of cultural conditioning.

In the modern history of both the West and Egypt, the largely middle-class democratic elements we are considering have embraced much the same values and lifestyle. They have both also been culturally conditioned to see the greatest danger to their idealized society as coming from somewhere other than the reactionary Right.

In the West, the democrats have been conditioned by a capitalist culture to believe that the bete noire comes from the specter of Communism. The Egyptian democratic middle class, which is largely a secular group that has taken on Western values, hasn’t got the same historical fear of Communism as those in the West. However, they have long considered Islam and its Sharia law as an archaic and potentially totalitarian force that could destroy their political and cultural ideals.

Of course, there are real dangers to democratic values and practices coming from both these sources. Yet, in having become so sensitized to Communism and political Islam, the democrats of both the West and Egypt have failed to develop sufficient sensitivity to the threat from the right. So much so that many of them willingly ally with reactionary forces at the first sign of political success of that other third force, their respective bete noire.

Facing a feared maybe of a theocratic state, the secular democratic forces of Egypt rushed headlong into the certainty of a renewed military dictatorship operating behind civilian front men. They have also brought on the possibility of years of civil strife.

If only these democrats had looked for the precedents, they would have known that the probability of this outcome was high. Yet apparently they did not stop to consider this. “Ignorantia est semper periculosum principium.”  Ignorance is always a dangerous starting point.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

4 comments for “Democracy’s Fateful Choice in Egypt

  1. rosemerry
    August 27, 2013 at 02:32

    We could also remember the election of a Palestinian Hamas-led government which was not allowed to take charge and show if it was willing to bring democracy. Many voted for Hamas because it was not corrupt, and most Palestinian Christians (as now in Gaza) supported it. We see the result of the alternative and the Israel /US destruction of Pamestinian hopes.

  2. Morton Kurzweil
    August 26, 2013 at 11:41

    “a traditional military caste allied to a reactionary police force, to a reactionary judiciary, and to “big business” elements” must be applied to the United States if we are to face the pressures to intervene by our bureaucracy, our military, our congress and our supreme court. How are we to influence ethnic bigotry with our own form of national religious beliefs in Christian morality, mythical precedents, and the superiority of divine mandate? We have lost every conflict that was an attempt to extend the American Empire because we used the same ancient ethnic morality that keeps all groups at constant war. The average human wants the same thing, peace and security. The group is run by substituting individual rights for group values of belief in ethnic superiority and the inferiority of ‘others. There is no difference between the insane suicidal acts of racial, religious, and tribal warfare in the U.S. and Egypt. The average Egyptian wants what we want. The State wants bureaucratic power. Unless we clean our own house we are hypocrites sending our citizens to pay for the big business, reactionary judiciary, and military caste that controls our legislature,

  3. Masud Awan
    August 26, 2013 at 06:09

    “This only opened space for more violent Islamist elements and began an erosion of the Brotherhood’s chain of command. Thus we saw the attacks on the Coptic churches, police stations, government buildings, and soldiers and police in the Sinai area. Despite this, the wonder is that the vast majority of Egyptian Islamists have stayed nonviolent even now. We do not know if this restraint will last.”

    Could these elements not be the foreign trained and supported mercenaries in the guise of Islamists to sabotage Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation? I don’t expect Lawrence Davidson to answer this question as he is not an investigative journalist.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    August 25, 2013 at 11:32

    At last, a rational, historically grounded and honest analysis of this scenario. I was immediately struck by the textural similarities to the “Machtergreifung” in 1933 Germany, but it seems many analysts tried to pin that analogy on Morsi. It just doesn’t fit the facts. Yours is a brilliant analysis.

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