Egypt: Bullets or Ballots?

Getting rid of Mubarak was the easy part. He was thrown overboard by the army. Of course, the Tahrir Square protests had something to do with it. They made Mubarak a liability to the army as the real power in Egypt, the “deep state.”

Now, how to get rid of the army?

Perhaps some in the high command were sincere about transitioning to democracy. But others were not, targeting instead a transition to renewed military rule, old wine in new bottles.

The Economist’s latest cover

In siding with the protesters against Mubarak, it posed as “the people’s army.” But if it wanted to disguise its contempt for democracy and human rights, it did a rum job of that, with legions of civic activists subsequently hauled before military tribunals and handed ferocious sentences for what amounts to the crime of lese-majeste toward the army. Its attitude was exemplified by the prosecution of American NGO workers, and locals, for the heinous offense of teaching about democracy. The army soon realized how dumb it was to shove this finger in America’s eye, so our citizens were let go; but not the Egyptians who worked with them.

Then they (deliberately?) screwed up the presidential election by disqualifying several leading candidates on asinine pretexts – including the Islamist Brotherhood’s front-runner, thrown off the ballot because of a criminal record – he’d been a political prisoner under Mubarak! Actually a sterling qualification for office now, one might think.

Mohammed Morsi

So among a crowd of second-string candidates, Egypt wound up with a Hobson’s choice run-off between the Brotherhood’s back-up guy, Morsi, and Shafiq, who was briefly Mubarak’s last prime minister. Together they had less than half the vote; too many liberal/secular candidates divided the rest. However, it seemed a moral impossibility that after all that had gone down, the elderly former Air Force General Mubarak would be succeeded by elderly former Air Force General Shafiq. Morsi did appear to have won, but the army was cagily slow about officially announcing it (perhaps trying to make a deal with either candidate).

In the meantime it connived a court ruling, belatedly invoking some nonsensical technicality to throw out the whole recent parliamentary election, which Islamists had also won. A naked power grab: pending (eventual?) new elections, the army will exercise all legislative powers – including, crucially, the drafting of a new constitution which, no doubt, will securely enshrine the army’s power, perquisites, and unaccountability.

Morsi has now finally been declared president. The army apparently lacked the will to sneak Shafiq in, knowing how badly such ploys have gone elsewhere. (The world has changed.) But without a constitution, the new president’s authority is limited, so letting Morsi have the job is a small concession, to pacify the “mob,” while the military continues to run the show and even consolidate its power. Will Egyptians let it? The battle will be very hard – much harder than seeing off one man, Mubarak.*

 Let us be clear: the army is not a legitimate institution. In theory it exists to defend the nation; in reality, in Egypt and many other countries, that function has to all intents and purposes disappeared, leaving instead an army that actually functions for its own purposes and interests, inimical to those of the population it notionally serves. Armies can do this for one simple reason: they have guns. Same as criminal mafias.

Countries like Egypt cannot truly join the modern world until their affairs are governed by ballots, not bullets. Slowly, inch by inch, we see progress. A good model is Turkey, whose own “deep state” is being tamed, its army gotten out of the nation’s face and defanged. A few countries have abolished their armies altogether.

 Through all Egypt’s turmoil, the Obama administration has been typically, sleepily inert, as though we are mere bystanders. But Egypt matters greatly to our interests – as evidenced by our $2 billion (mostly military) annual aid. Shouldn’t that buy us some clout? We should be saying – no, thundering – that we back the Egyptian people, and their elected president, against the army. To prove it, we should stop the military aid, and redirect the money to things like schools and health clinics, which the Egyptian people desperately need. They don’t need military aid (strengthening the army even more). Much less does Egypt’s army deserve it.

We’re told Morsi and the Brotherhood are not our friends. Maybe they have reasons. All the more reason to go out of our way to show the enmity is not reciprocated, and can be overcome.

Wake up, Mr. President; let’s please get on the right side of history.

* My last post about Egypt (2/11/11) may have been overly euphoric. Forgive me that. Life’s path is never simple. It’s two steps forward and one step back – often ten steps forward and nine back. But Egypt’s 2/11 step forward was a big one, worthy of celebration.

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2 Responses to “Egypt: Bullets or Ballots?”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    Well written and very interesting. I guess in general the US would rather back a military regime (with close links to our military) than any elected socialist or Muslim government.

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