The Egyptian Demos Speaks (and Louder Than Ours)

Is it or is it not a military coup in Egypt?  This semantic game is, predictably, being played out among the talking heads, and hardly surprising, the answer depends a great deal upon the political convictions of the speaker.  Yes, the military has entered the political arena and ousted the sitting government, which is certainly coup-like.  On the other hand, although the military is looking after its own interest, it is nevertheless responding to an unprecedented demonstration of discontent with an increasingly unresponsive and autocratic government.  So, call it a military coup, but one with incredibly broad popular support.

Of course, governments, even those that could not stomach Morsi and his Muslem Brotherhood, are bemoaning the fact that the Egyptian army has removed a legitimate, freely elected, if obnoxious, administration.  Naturally, this has less to do with any deep commitment to constitutional process than with the simple fact that governments like other governments far better than people in the streets.  Recall the consternation in Washington when the Wall came down: we understood the behavior of that nasty DDR government and could deal with it, but people pouring in to the streets demanding freedom?  Where will that end?  And military dictatorships are the best, because they tend to be more stable and consistent in their policies.

The “deep concern” over dumping the legitimately elected government of Morsi rings a bit hollow, especially where the US is concerned.  We refuse to recognize Hamas in Gaza, and they were legitimately elected.  When the Algerian military suspended elections in 1992 because the Islamic Front was winning in the early rounds, we had no problem supporting the new dictatorship.  In 1973 we actually aided in the overthrow of the freely elected President, Salvador Allende.  How about the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh?  We engineered a coup against him in 1953 and installed the not so freely elected Shah.  Certainly the US would like to see military rule in Egypt, so long as they provide stability and do not mess with Israel.

Distrust of the common people protesting in the streets inevitably evokes the label of “mob rule,” which suggests violence and illegality and behavior distasteful to civilized democratic folk.  But one might suggest that democracy is simply polite and orderly mob rule.  Aristotle in fact distinguished between “democracy,” rule of the demos or people, and “ochlocracy,” rule of the ochlos or mob, yet the distinction was not based on the venue – the streets or the assembly hall – or the political mechanism – throwing rocks or voting – but on the aim of the group.  If the citizens in the sovereign assembly carried on in the best long term interests of the society, they constituted a democracy; if they sought only short term benefit for themselves, they were instead an ochlocracy.  According to Aristotle, then, what we have in Washington is mob rule.

Allowing Morsi to finish out his term and then be turned out of office by the voters strikes me as risky business.  Like his colleague in Turkey, Prime Minster Recep Erdoğan, Morsi betrayed his deep lack of understanding of democratic rule by assuming that once elected by a majority one can do anything one wants and ignore and punish opposition forces.  His increasingly autocratic behavior and blatant favoring of one minority group does not immediately suggest a peaceful and democratic change of power when his term ended.  More likely would be elections rigged by a Muslem Brotherhood now in secure control of the mechanisms of government.

In a state such as Egypt with virtually no practice in democratic rule deposing a plainly incompetent and nefarious ruler by mass demonstrations and the help of the military might be considered a democratic act of a  more rough and ready nature.  After all, how free are our elections?  We have two entrenched parties, who enjoy almost complete control over who runs for office, and given that elections are essentially an exercise in mass marketing rather than political debate, these contests are easily manipulated by the economic powers in the society.  Absent term limits, an elected official can pretty much hold his office for life because of the incumbent’s access to the big money and the results of two centuries of gerrymandering of districts.  And let us not forget the ignorance and passivity of the American electorate.  What has happened in Egypt appears in many ways far more democratic than what goes on here according to the rules.

I praise the Egyptian people for not putting up with the governmental crap that we routinely do.

Incidentally, Hitler was legitimately elected.