Here in the Philippines, we like to call such events “people power revolutions,” a self-description that oozes with political romanticism but carries little analytic value. The term preferred by observers is “civilian-military coup,” a term that traces the initiative for the ouster of a regime to civil society, while acknowledging the crucial role played by the military.
Such indeed is the nature of the “Arab Spring” upheaval in Egypt in 2011, which ended the 30-year autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, and of the more recent 2013 coup, which toppled the democratically-elected government of the Islamist leader, Mohammed Morsi. Filipinos can easily relate to these events because they are reminiscent of the way the Philippine military found itself cast in the role of political fulcrum in the two Edsas of 1986 and 2001.
In 1986, the Marcos dictatorship fell when civilian demonstrators defied the police and armed forces in the aftermath of the “snap” presidential election. The massive civilian protests split the security forces of the state, resulting in the refusal of the soldiers and the police to fire on the unarmed crowds. Marcos and his family had to be evacuated from the Palace when it became clear that the army would not lift a finger to protect them.
In Egypt’s case, the military allowed the crowd to swell on Tahrir Square, thus quietly signaling the withdrawal of its support for Mubarak. When Mubarak fled, the then defense minister, Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, took over to pave the transition to a duly-elected civilian government. The junta could not stay on indefinitely because the pressure to normalize the political situation under a democratic civilian government was very strong. Elections were held a year later and were won by the best organized group that had participated in the ouster of Mubarak. This was the Muslim Brotherhood, the politico-religious group to which President Morsi belongs. The rest of the Arab Spring activists—leftwingers and secular liberals alike—could not form a coherent political vehicle in time for the elections. Thus they remained in the margins, and watched helplessly as the country drifted from military rule to Islamist rule.
The civilian-military coup that ousted Morsi last week is a recuperation of the modern secular democratic impulse that animates the youth-driven call for change throughout the Arab world today. But it is not assured of a happy ending. The liberal democratic agenda could not be started without the intervention of the military. Neither can it succeed unless its diffused constituency achieves more or less the same level of organization as the politico-religious party of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi may be finished, but the Muslim Brotherhood is very much alive. Its members have had more than 80 years of experience in underground organizing and resistance. Today they are a formidable electoral force, modeling their political project after that of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey. The Islamist AKP has been in power for more than 10 years now, winning the last three elections by a clear majority. Its political success is complemented by the ground-level social activism of its civil-society counterpart—a middle-class Islamic movement led by professionals and businessmen who run schools and media outfits. In spite of the recent protests against the autocratic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP government itself is generally admired for its success in bringing about sustained economic prosperity to Turkey.
Not so with Morsi. During his year in office as president, he failed to arrest the deterioration of the Egyptian economy. His personal arrogance, which alienated him from the political class outside the Muslim Brotherhood, accentuated his inability to offer enduring solutions to basic problems like traffic, fuel shortages, and faltering electric supply. It is not a surprise that the first items on the agenda of the interim leaders purport to rescue and stabilize the economy. A Cabinet of technocrats that can credibly negotiate new loans with the International Monetary Fund is what one of the new leaders, the Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, was discussing on television the other day.
I do not think that a strictly secular modernist scheme such as this will succeed unless it makes room for the active participation of existing religious groups in charting the nation’s future. Otherwise, it will be no more than the reverse image of the Islamist vision that Morsi sought to realize for Egypt, a project that ignores the longstanding secular culture that had grown under previous military rule. The ideal for Egypt is clearly a modern constitutional democracy that can navigate between the dangerous waters of militarism and the perilous shoals of Islamic fundamentalism. The fate of this ideal will have an immediate impact on the future of Libya and Tunisia, and that of the whole Arab world in the long term.
When one ponders the recent events in Egypt, one can’t help thinking how complex it is to rebuild a society after a period of revolutionary upheaval. Our own transition to a stable political order appears painless in comparison. But, in fact, it was filled with danger. The Cory government formed after Edsa 1 had to face seven coup attempts. At any point, the country could have been plunged into a civil war. What seems to have helped us dodge these dangers was the attitude of inclusiveness that kept our leaders from taking extreme positions. That’s what we wish for Egypt.
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