As governments transition and Egypt is figuring out what to do in the aftermath of a military coup, it is important to recognize this is not an event devoid of context, but is a product of a long history, one in which we have had no small part.
“Wait a second”, it might be said,”what’s with calling this a ‘coup’? The people wanted Morsi out, and that’s what happened!”
In the lead-up to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, we saw some of the largest protests in history, with millions of people out on the streets. People were angry, either because of being too conservative or not conservative enough, and he shut key allies out of decisions while working to limit the rights of communities inside Egypt. In terms of values, he’s someone who should be vehemently opposed with, and as evidenced by the protests before he was deposed, millions of Egyptians agreed. (The Huffington Post has a useful timeline of the events leading up to Morsi’s ouster)
But a democratically-elected head of state being removed by military force is an action which should give pause to observers of the situation.
What’s happening in Egypt is a situation that must bring out the shades of gray, because as parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum were plagued by low-turnout, and the former President governed with a constant neglect of women’s rights and religious minorities, there is little evidence that the aftermath is much better, as supporters of Morsi are being subject to violent crackdowns and mass killings. This crackdown on dissent does not lead to the rule of law and a healthy democracy just as much as the disrespecting a vote of the people.
Many people praise the new Egypt, rationalizing that it will lead to an Egypt that is more pro-American, one that we can work with more and will like us better. Not only do these thoughts uphold a double standard, but it removes from discussion the role that the United States has had in upholding repressive regimes in the area, and our own path through history.
The United States had a strong role in propping up Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 30-year regime, through military equipment and other tools to advance our interests. While we gave him the tools to further his rule, Mubarak restricted press freedom, strangled political parties, and let police brutality continue with impunity. Repression does not remove beliefs, but rather intensifies them, and when Mubarak was removed, it should not have been surprising that many deeply-seated religious views, and anti-American sentiment from both our handling of Mubarak’s exit and our previous actions came to dominate the political sphere of the country.
We must not forget how messy democracy is, our own included, and we cannot judge the health of a democracy by how much the participants like the United States. We must not think that a military not under the control of elected officials is a good thing, because it’s ability to independently use force is unable to be checked by a vote of a people, but rather its own satisfaction and good grace. Finally, we must believe in the power of any people to self-govern, lest we continue new concepts of imperialism (such as that advanced by David Brooks) which suppose that somehow in the United States we became equipped to govern ourselves by the wave of a magic wand, rather than a long and tedious process which still disenfranchises people of color, queer folks, indigenous people, and the poor.
Right now people are dying in the Egypt for opposing the current government, a government brought in by force (a change which many in the United States have applauded), and unless people are able to use democracy and the rule of law to help shape the direction of their country, it will be harder for them to move past the radical views engendered by decades-long repression and stifling of political thought. We can look on at the decisions made by Egyptian democracy and disagree with them, but if we interfere with those choices we are allowing for ourselves what we would not give for them; if we do that, then we’re saying we really don’t believe in the idea of democracy itself.