Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Reckless and Stupid
The End of Egyptian Democracy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 9, 2013 --  

Egypt's liberals are cheering the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. They should be trembling in fear for their future.

When the Islamic Salvation Front won the 1991 elections in Algeria, secularist leaders in the country's army would have none of it. The democratic process was suspended, leaders of the victorious party were arrested, and the Army chose a hand-picked secularist president to rule the country.

Roll the clock forward two decades and change the place to Egypt, and this sounds an awful lot like the events of today. Given what happened next in Algeria, that's not good news. A brutal civil war erupted, and the members of the winning Islamist party took up arms, only to be eclipsed by fighters from more radical groups. These rebels terrorized Algeria for most of the decade, regularly blowing up or beheading government sympathizers, foreigners, and even other Islamists with whom it had disagreements. When the violence finally died down, tens of thousands were dead. And splinter faction of these rebels remained fighting in neighboring Mali as recently as this spring.1

A similar disaster my be brewing in Egypt now that the military has deposed the duly elected Muslim Brotherhood government. While the millions of protesters who rallied against ousted President Mohammed Morsi are celebrating his fall, the movement's supporters are angry and disappointed. Over fifty were killed on Monday when the army massacred Muslim Brotherhood supporters who allegedly attacked soldiers during a protest.2 The New York Times quoted a Brotherhood supporter, Mahmoud Taha, who put it succinctly: "Didn’t we do what they asked? We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?"3

Having won power by the ballot box only to have it stolen from them by the military and secular opposition forces, Egypt's Islamists, have been taught that their political goals cannot be achieved through democratic means. In Algeria, it took over a year for sporadic unrest to evolve into a violent civil war. Egypt's liberals may be celebrating now, but they should be terrified for the future.

To be sure, opposition activists and members of the armed forces have plenty of justification for hating Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. It is a power-hungry movement that has no respect for individual liberty, religious minorities, or even the democratic process when it doesn't advance their power. The five million voters who chose the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi as their first pick in the first round of elections4 were potentially outnumbered by the millions more said to have called for his ouster in massive protests on June 30.5 But democracy is not mob rule, and just because lots of people want the president to go, doesn't mean that it should happen.

The constructive way to deal with the despotic but freely elected movement would have been to mute its power to do harm and by highlight its unpopular acts. While Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood brokered constitution lacks strong constitutional limits on powers, there was still plenty that the courts and the country's powerful military could have done to keep Morsi in check short of ousting him in a coup. Apparently, however, opponents just weren't patient enough to wait the four years remaining in Morsi's term.

This impatience is reckless and stupid. Those who live in mature democracies realize that the frustrating experience of being out of power is the price you pay for a system where you settle your political disputes peacefully. The failure to live by this bargain at best means the end of Egyptian democracy for the foreseeable future, and at worst, it signals the beginning of a bloody civil war. While the Egyptian military has promised new elections, it remains unclear whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to participate. Even if not actually barred, it is hard to imagine the Brotherhood taking part given that it already won once and was not allowed to complete its term. For those who are now cut out of Egypt's new democratic order, they will ultimately have to decide whether to simply give up (unlikely) or seek a path to power outside the system.

For Egyptians who value peace, it is imperative that Islamists be given a say. A new constitutional commission, including all parties, would ideally create a consensus document that limits the threat of creeping dictatorship no matter who wins future elections. But given that Islamists don't believe in constitutional limits on power -- let alone democracy -- this is clearly too much to hope for.

Democracy has failed in Egypt -- probably for a generation. The country now faces a bad choice between two types of dictatorship: a peaceful one that co-opts and includes the Islamists, and a more liberal one that fights a civil war against them. The army's inclusion of the opposition islamist al-Nour party in the post-Morsi transitional government6 suggests that it is attempting to take the co-opting route. Yet the party's abandonment of negotiations in the wake of the massacre suggests it may be difficult to keep Islamists at the table.7 Let us hope that Egypt's military strongmen can find a route avoids the bloody lessons of Algeria.

Related Web Columns:

Illiberal Democracy, November 27, 2012

Still Tarnished, September 18, 2012

Twitter Feeds and Tie-Dies, February 8, 2011


1. Al Jazeera, Al-Qaeda Confirms Death of Leader in Mali, June 17, 2013

2. Washington Post, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Calls for 'Uprising' After Troops Shoot Protesters, July 8, 2013

3. New York Times, For Islamists, Dire Lessons on Politics and Power, July 4, 2013

4. Al Jazeera, Shafiq and Morsi Confirmed for Egypt Runoff, May 28, 2012

5. Reuters, Millions Flood Egypt's Streets to Demand Mursi Quit, June 30, 2013

6. The Guradian, Egypt's Salafist al-Nour Party Wields New Influence on Post-Morsi Coalition, July 7, 2013

7. Reuters, Egypt Nour Party Says Would Accept Ex-Finance Min as Interim PM, July 9, 2013