This summer, Egypt’s first brief experiment with democracy came crashing down. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the governing body of Egypt’s military, ousted the recently elected Mohammed Morsi after a brief struggle between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the army.
The Islamist president was removed, SCAF claimed, because the people demanded it. Indeed, there had been massive street protests in response to skyrocketing gas prices and unemployment. Perhaps Morsi was not the best executive. Perhaps SCAF was doing just what it had when it threw its support behind the people and helped depose of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Here, though, the situation was different. Morsi was democratically elected, and his removal, if it was to happen, should have followed democratic principles.
But maybe his successor would be better; maybe democracy could flourish in Egypt after all.
In the months since the SCAF took control — which it claimed was just a temporary measure to facilitate the transition to a new administration — it’s become clear that democracy’s bloom has died in Egypt for the time being.
Morsi’s supporters, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and countless other political activists continue to be rounded up; the country remains in a state of emergency, a thin veneer that gives the army near limitless power.
In the past month, SCAF’s final play has emerged. On Jan. 28, the military ruled that Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Morsi’s handpicked minister of defense who later led the charge to remove him from office, was eligible to run for office.
Though he has yet to announce his candidacy, it’s all but certain that al-Sisi will run for president. And, given SCAF’s control of virtually all of Egypt’s political and media institutions, it’s all but certain that he will win.
Remember, before Mubarak’s ouster, SCAF supported him for three decades. It has no principled commitment to democracy; it wants to maintain its long-standing control of Egypt’s economy. Neither Mubarak nor Morsi could give it that, so it is now taking the reigns itself, despite its frequent promises since Mubarak’s fall that it was interested only in making sure the country’s transition to democracy was smooth.
Will Egypt suddenly become a brutal autocracy, where gays, non-Muslims and other undesirables are dragged off and executed, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? No. What it will resemble, though, is Syria, Saudi Arabia or, most likely, Mubarak-era Egypt.
The demise of Egypt’s democracy is unfortunate. But a look at the alternative to an al-Sisi presidency is useful. Were the army to fall in Egypt, the country would likely become quickly embroiled in the sort of internecine conflict now tearing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan apart.
In all of those conflicts, the choice is between a less than democratic leader on one hand, and Islamist, al-Qaida-affiliated rebels on the other. The choice in my mind is clear: Give me a stable regime that allows some measure of religious tolerance, economic freedom and public education over a brutal regime where straying outside strictly defined religious and social boundaries is grounds for death.