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July 8, 2013

In Blog

The Perils of a ‘People’s Coup’

LOS ANGELES — THE Egyptian Army claims that it had no choice but to overthrow the country’s first legitimately elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and that last week’s coup reflected the will of the Egyptian people. It’s true that most Egyptians hated Mr. Morsi’s inept government and rejoiced at his downfall.

But Mr. Morsi’s fall does not bode well for the future of Egypt and democracy in the region. The army is following in the footsteps of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, who shared a common trait. They all pointed to their supporters in the streets as the source of their legitimacy and perpetuated autocratic rule in the name of the people’s will. By stepping in to remove an unpopular president, the Egyptian Army reaffirmed a despotic tradition in the Middle East: Army officers decide what the country needs, and they always know best.

Traditionally, there have been two institutions in Egypt that have considered themselves above accountability: the military and the judiciary. Both have refused to answer to any civilian power.

Both are firmly rooted in the regime of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak; they are staunchly secular, authoritarian and corrupt. The army has assured the United States and the world that it won’t intervene in politics again after this coup. It has called upon all Egyptians to come together, to forget their differences, and not to seek vengeance.

However, while spouting this lofty rhetoric, the army has completely flouted the basic principles of the rule of law. It has arrested members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Mr. Morsi’s political party for sedition and advocating violence, but conveniently failed to arrest any of the people responsible for burning Brotherhood offices or gunning down Mr. Morsi’s supporters.

Many so-called liberals are praising the military for upholding personal freedoms while blissfully ignoring the fact that one of the army’s first acts was to close down all media that the military, in its infinite wisdom, deemed a danger to public order. This includes Al Jazeera, which saw its office in Cairo shut and its workers threatened and arrested, and their equipment confiscated.

This is nothing new. The army has simply reaffirmed and aggravated a decades-old feud between secularists (who believe that they alone understand democracy) and Islamists (who believe that secularists only believe in democracy when it serves to exclude and marginalize Islamists). Mr. Morsi’s fatal mistake was to believe he could win the trust and loyalty of his defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. Instead, he got a coup.

Secularists across the Middle East have traditionally failed at the ballot box because they lacked support among the pious masses and instead had to rely on the repressive might of the military. Islamists have generally fared well in elections, but because of emotional appeal rather than competence in governing. So secularists have ended up monopolizing power by excluding and repressing Islamists. The predictable result has been radicalization of the Islamists, after they lose trust in the hallowed principles of democracy and human rights.

And that’s what is likely to happen again in Egypt. How can Islamists be included when they are being jailed, and why should they engage in the democratic process when they know that if they win elections, the military and judiciary will likely intervene once more to neutralize them?

Those Egyptians who rejoiced in Cairo last week forget that the same police who brutally attacked anti-Mubarak protesters in 2011 and then disappeared from the streets returned instantly when the possibility of reinstating the old regime presented itself. And they showed great competence in brutally repressing those they disagree with.

Those same rejoicing Egyptians forget that after the 2011 revolution, the army thanked the Egyptian people and told them to go home, leaving the country’s government to an unelected junta. Now, these same rejoicing masses have given the military an excuse to stage a coup and decide the fate of the country.

No country did more to undermine Mr. Morsi’s government and celebrate its fall than Saudi Arabia. The Saudis understand that the threat that the Egyptian democratic experiment once posed to Saudi autocracy is gone.

Democracy is not founded upon the principle of safeguarding the rights of the popular, but upon safeguarding the rights of the most unpopular. What so many Egyptians are forgetting is that the same “public interest” that justified the overthrow and persecution of one political party today will tomorrow justify the repression of anyone who questions the power of Egypt’s army and judiciary.

The anti-Morsi protesters should have marched on the presidential palace and insisted on military neutrality; the army would not have protected Mr. Morsi. Using civil disobedience to bring down Mr. Morsi would have been a longer and harder road, but in the long term it would have created a precedent for noncoercive political change that Egypt badly needs.

This time, the military agreed with the protesters. But next time, when protesters call for something that isn’t in the army’s interest, they will meet a very different fate. Today they are called “the people”; tomorrow they will be labeled seditious saboteurs. A year from now, the dreamy youth who celebrated and danced when Mr. Morsi was overthrown may well find themselves in the cell next door to the Brotherhood.


Khaled M. Abou El Fadl is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 8, 2013, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: The Perils of a ‘People’s Coup’.