Egyptian military helicopters trailing national flags circled over Tahrir Square during a protest demanding that Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi resign in Cairo

When, on 3 July, the Egyptian army ousted President Mohammed Morsi, and took control of the nation, many liberals and secularists rationalized it not as a coup but as the military acting on behalf of the people to protect the revolution. When the army imprisoned Morsi, and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, censored its media and suspended the constitution, many liberals and secularists rationalized it not as an authoritarian crackdown but as measures necessary to check the ambitions of the Brotherhood and to preserve the gains of the revolution.  When, last week, the army shot dead dozens of pro-Morsi protestors, many liberals and secularists rationalized it not as a barbaric act comparable with the savagery of previous dictator Hosni Mubarak, but as ‘self-defence’ against ‘terrorists’ bent on bringing down democracy. In reality what is being rationalized away is the soul of the Egyptian revolution.

The tragedy of Egypt today is that contemporary events echo a historical pattern repeated again and again throughout the Arab world. Supporters of the coup point out that the Egyptian army is more than merely an army; it occupies, they argue, a special place in Egyptian society. They are right. But the army only does so because of the weakness of the political sphere. There is a long history in the Arab world of popular movements for democratic change and a secular society.  Such movements have, however, often been organizationally fragile and politically incoherent. In their stead, the military has taken on the role of the agent of social change, the mechanism through which the nation is ‘modernized’. Secularism and ‘progressive’ politics have, as a result, long been associated not with freedom and democracy but with military power and authoritarian rule – from Nasserism in Egypt to  Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq. This is turn has encouraged the growth of religious anti-liberal movements, including Islamism.

There was a chance that this time around the Arab Spring might have produced something different. The mass popular protests, against first Hosni Mubarak and then Mohammad Morsi, looked as if they might finally transform Egypt’s political landscape. The very spontaneity of the revolts has been both their strength and their weakness. It revealed the depth of anger at the old regime, and the potency of the desire for democratic change.  But the lack of formal leadership or political organization has once again compromised the ability of protestors to achieve their goals.  Instead, there has been a return to the old pattern, as the army has stepped in to play the role of national saviour.

The Egyptian military has been happy to play along with the idea that its actions are in accordance with the wishes of the people. ‘The people summoned the armed forces for the mission of balancing the tipped scales and restoring diverted goals’, claimed army commander in chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his broadcast to the nation on Sunday. In reality the diverted goals that the army wishes to restore are not so much popular democracy as the maintenance of social order, political stability and the retention of military power.

Army soldiers stand guard near the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo

‘The people’, as one Egyptian blogger observed, were mentioned twenty-eight times in Sisi’s speech, ‘but their sovereignty was not affirmed once’. What was emphasized, rather, was that ‘the armed forces are the unmoved mover, guarding the country’s politics not just its borders’. Sisi’s central point is that ‘Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people’.

This has become the central point of many Western commentators and leaders, too.  The need to maintain order and stability has always shaped Western governments’ attitude to foreign governments. For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak’s brutally dictatorial regime received unstinting support, not to mention fat pay cheques, from European and American governments.  Western leaders were willing to overlook Mubarak’s refusal hold free elections, his banning of all political parties and his savagely repressive police state because he was able to deliver stability, keeping in check radical movements, both secular and Islamic, maintaining peace with Israel and helping America pursue its Middle East policies.  Not long before the fall of the dictator, Barack Obama flatly rejected the claim that Mubarak was an ‘authoritarian ruler’, dismissing such talk as merely ‘criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt’, and saying of the Egyptian leader that ‘He has been a stalwart ally’ and  ‘a force for stability.’ Even after the Tahrir Square protests started in January 2011, Western leaders continued to back Mubarak as the best means of bringing change. Mubarak, Tony Blair told CNN in February of that year, while millions were still occupying Tahrir Square, remains ‘immensely courageous and a force for good.’ The same considerations now shape Western attitudes towards the military takeover, making Obama reluctant to call a coup a coup, and leading Tony Blair, the man who went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan supposedly to free the people from the shackles of tyranny, to praise the General Sisi for preventing chaos.

Democracy, Blair wrote in support of the coup, ‘is a way of deciding the decision-makers, but it is not a substitute for making the decision.’ A dictator who takes the right decisions, in other words, is preferable to a popularly elected government that takes wrong ones. But what are the right decisions? The decisions that Blair thinks are right will undoubtedly be different from those that I or you might think are right and, more importantly, will undoubtedly be different from those that the people of Egypt might think are right. The whole point of democracy is to provide a mechanism for negotiating such differences. That is why, contrary to what Blair might insist, democracy is not simply a means of ‘deciding the decision-makers’; it is also a mechanism for ‘making the decisions’. Once we give up on that idea, once we take an instrumental view of democracy as a good only when the ‘right’ decisions are made, then we give up on democracy itself.

Bodies lie in a room of a hospital after a shooting happened at the Republi

If many Western politicians have embraced the coup because they prefer stability to democracy, many liberals and secularists have done so because of their hostility towards Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. I share that hostility. I don’t need any lessons in the perniciousness of Islamism or the need to combat it. We need to challenge those, like Morsi, who seek to use the democratic process to undermine democracy, and attempt to impose illiberal, divisive laws and constitutions. But it hardly helps the argument that democracy is a good if supposed democrats celebrate the military overthrow of a democratically-elected leader, the imprisonment of opposition politicians, and the mass murder of protestors.

Democracy is, of course, not merely about placing a cross on a ballot paper. To envision democracy simply as filling in a ballot paper is to envision a quiescent polity in which class interests, institutional players and entrenched social forces mould the democratic process.  We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy by acting collectively. This requires the creation of a robust public sphere, of a democracy that is contested as much on the streets and in the workplace as in the polling station. The popular protests against Morsi, when millions took to the streets to oust him, were a vital part of the democratic process. But the moment the army stepped in, the moment anti-Morsi protestors welcomed the military as a progressive agency of change, the democratic process became warped. The more that the military is allowed to wield power, the more that the public sphere decays.

To oppose the army coup, to oppose the imprisonment of Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders, to oppose the shooting dead of Islamist protestors, is not, as many have suggested, to defend Islamism. Tyranny and repression do not become acceptable just because the targets of such tyranny and repression are Islamists or anti-democrats. The fruits of democracy and freedom must apply to all or they become meaningless. We have to oppose the army coup for the same reason that we have to oppose Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood: to defend freedom and democracy as goods in themselves.


  1. tamimisledus

    The muslim brotherhood has the aim of subjugating the entire world to the tyranny of islam. It is not tyranny to oppose that aim. It is merely necessary self protection.

    • Of course, it’s not tyrannical to oppose the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have always opposed them, and I do so here. What is tyrannical is the military coup, the mass arrest of opposition leaders and the shooting dead of protestors in the streets.

      It is worth adding that if you want to oppose Islamism, the last institution you should look to is the Egyptian army, whose attitude to Islamists depends on political need. Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak – all at certain times savagely repressed the Brotherhood. But all also, at other times, come to a rapprochement with the Islamists when they needed them to crush radical secularist opposition. Today, the military might be hostile to Morsi and the Brotherhood, but it invited the Salafists – a far more extreme organization – to join the post-coup government. Sure it’s ‘necessary self-protection’ – the military is necessarily protecting its own needs.

    • tamimisledus

      For a point of clarification, salafists gained around 17% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential Election. Also, the salafists gained over 27% of the vote in the previous Parliamentary Elections.

  2. almo

    To be provocative, did we not celebrate the military overthrow of a democratically elected leader in 1945? Quite how “democratically elected” perhaps was the point then, and perhaps also now. My relative ignorance prevents me from forming too strong an opinion on the elections, but there are at least some reports of electoral violations.

    • I’m afraid that the comparison of Morsi with Hitler, and of the military coup with the Second World War, reveals the weakness not the strength of the pro-coup argument.

      • bruce madeiros

        It took over 5 years to destroy the Nazi and afterwards the West left the Germans to self govern themselves once again ( ignoring what the Russians did !!!) . Lets hope that army will fulfill their pledge and allow for new elections in months rather than years

      • almo

        Kenan, perhaps I expressed my point badly. It was that it is not always wrong or anti-democratic to celebrate a coup – certainly after the event many Egyptians were celebrating. In light of the deficiencies of the constitution, would you condemn them? I have not myself formed an opinion yet.

        Bruce, here’s hoping…

        • bruce madeiros

          I was looking on the net and found some interesting comments about Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the commander of Egypt’s armed forces, who deposed Morsi. In 2006 Sisi wrote his own biography which suggest that he would like to have a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism like Pakistan use to be . Apparently he is reputed to be a particularly devout Muslim who frequently inserts Koranic verses into informal conversations, and his wife wears the conservative dress favoured by more orthodox Muslims. It has been suggested that Sisi would seek legitimacy for military rule by associating it with Islamism which could prove to be a disaster for Egypt. At the very least, it would set back the democratic cause immeasurably. It would also reinforce the military’s hold on the economy, which is already one of the major obstacles to the country’s economic development and if this happens it will be at the expense of the Egyptian people.

      • Almo, the fact that many Egyptians support the coup does not make it right, any more than the fact that many Egyptians supported (and continue to support) the Muslim Brotherhood make their actions right. A coup is inherently anti-democratic because it makes the military rather than the people the arbiter of what is right for the nation. Why is it so difficult to form an opinion as to whether it is right for generals to seize power, for opposition leaders to be thrown into prison, for opposition media to be shut down and for anti-government protestors to be shot dead in the street?

  3. bruce madeiros

    The Guardian sees this as a woman who has been raped by her husband and he insists that she remains with him because of the marriage certificate requires her to do so. Also Hitler got to power through democratic means and he then changed the goal posts perhaps Morsi may have done that as well. Morsi was wanting to enforce that ALL Egyptians to close their business by 10pm so that would be up for morning prayers. That to me is massive control freakery . The problem with the Islamic view of governance there is no voice for the opposition or even the minority parties to exist as that is Dar Al-Harb and only Dar Al-Islam is allowed to exist.

    • It reveals the weakness of the pro-coup argument that everyone who makes it simply repeats the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is a nasty piece of work. Well, of course it’s a nasty piece of work. I have said that again and again, I have said that in this post. I have a lifetime of campaigning and polemicising against Islamism. That’s not the issue here. The issue is whether, as democrats and progressives, we should support military coups, the mass arrest of opposition leaders, the shooting dead of protestors on the streets, whoever may be the target. And whether democracy and freedom retain any meaning if we do. It is because I am opposed to Islamism that I oppose the coup. What the pro-coup faction fails to understand is that the military has snatched power not just from the democratically-elected Morsi government but also from the people of Egypt.

      • bruce madeiros

        point taken however the question is if Morsi was still in power and allowed to act increasing like a tyrant would this have resulted in a civil war just like the one in Syria ? Perhaps out of the frying pan and into the fire ?

      • I cannot see how the army moving against a democratically elected government, imprisoning its leaders, shooting dead its supporters (and labelling them ‘terrorists’), helps reduce the possibility of civil conflict.

    • So does democracy mean that the people are allowed to vote only for those groups that you (or the army) decide are acceptable? The Bangladeshi decision is outrageous. To ban a party from standing in elections because of its political beliefs (in this case opposition to secularism) is to fillet democracy. What is the fundamental difference between Bangladesh banning the Jammat-e-Islami, because of its opposition to secularism and support for sharia, and, say, Turkey’s ban on the Democratic Society Party because of its advocacy of Kurdish freedom, or, indeed, the Communist Control Act which attempted to ban the Communist Party in America?

      • Fritz

        What is your alternative? Let the fundamentalists have their way? You see what happened in Iran, the Islamic Republic was installed by popular vote. That was the last free elction in the country.

      • Are you suggesting that the only way not to ‘let the fundamentalists have their way’ is through military rule and bans on political parties with unacceptable beliefs? And that this is somehow an answer to the anti-democratic ideas of the Islamists? That was the logic that led Western powers to bankroll Hosni Mubarak’s tyrannical regime for three decades – and helped build up support for Islamist and Salafist movements. My alternative is to trust to popular movements, not military repression, to oppose Islamism. What happened in Iran, incidentally, was that a popular revolution overthrew the Shah. The radicals (meaning political, not religious, radicals) and the secularists were first outmanoeuvred and then crushed by Khomeini. Since then, state repression has denied the popular will. I agree with you that democracy is a good in Iran. It is also a good in Egypt.

  4. Once we give up on that idea, once we take an instrumental view of democracy as a good only when the ‘right’ decisions are made, then we give up on democracy itself.

    But there are undoubtedly wrong decisions, no? Let us say that an alien race, split between the majority red-skinned population and the minority green-skinned people, go to the polls and the reds vote to enslave their green-skinned compatriots. In such a case, the alien authority who overrides the majority would be defying the democratic will, for sure, but he/she would be right to.

    It’s the unspoken assumption that the popular will is not always a useful guide for a nation’s policies that has, for better or for worse, ensured that hanging won’t return; migration controls are loose and the U.K. is still a member of the European Union. While people may disagree over which elements of the British system should be somewhat undemocratic, no one seems to disagree that the popular will should sometimes be quietly repressed.

    None of this is to defend the coup, which seems to have been unconscionably brutal. But I do not have much faith in dictatorship or democracy as a means of solving Egypt’s woes. Those means, indeed, if they exist, seem depressingly obscure.

    • Sure, the fact that a policy is popular does not necessarily make it right. If democracy could always ensure the ‘right’ government, or the ‘correct’ policy, it would not be democracy at all. The reason we need democracy, after all, is that the idea of what is a ‘right’ government or policy is often fiercely contested.

      Take one of the examples you give – immigration policy. I have made my position clear many times on Pandaemonium – I am for mass immigration and for the opening up of borders. I also recognize that most people are not. As it happens, the relationship between the elite view and the popular view is far more complex than you suggest. One of the reasons for popular hostility to immigration is precisely because of the way that the elite has framed the debate from the beginning. But however strongly I may feel about the rightness and rationality of my argument, I would not wish to impose my views over the views of the majority, simply because they are my views. The way to change policy in a democracy is to persuade people through debate. This is precisely what too many are unwilling to do, or fearful of doing. Instead they are happier, in your words, to ‘quietly repress the popular will’. The result, in Britain, is disenchantment with politics itself, and growing support for groups such as UKIP. In Egypt, where the repression has not been so quiet, it is, as I have suggested before, one of the reasons for popular support for Islamism.

      As for your example about ‘an alien race’, the problem there is not democracy at all. It is the fact that you are describing a pathological society. In any society where the majority thinks it is right to enslave the minority, the hostility and oppression of one group towards the other would have spilt over long before anyone put a cross on a ballot paper. In such a society what requires confronting head on, physically as well as politically, is not a putative democratic decision, but that hostility and oppression, the hatred and prejudice. And we would need to confront it not through military coups but through popular movements. The tragedy of, say, Weimar Germany or Rwanda, was not democracy, but the failure to build such movements.

      • bruce madeiros

        yes democracy will stand when it allows the voice of the minorities to exists even if it is the likes of UKIP

      • Thank you for your challenging response.

        The way to change policy in a democracy is to persuade people through debate. This is precisely what too many are unwilling to do, or fearful of doing. Instead they are happier, in your words, to ‘quietly repress the popular will’.

        I may disagree with you on some things, Mr Malik, but I admire your honesty. It is refreshing.

        In any society where the majority thinks it is right to enslave the minority, the hostility and oppression of one group towards the other would have spilt over long before anyone put a cross on a ballot paper.

        It is an extreme case, to be sure, but is it so alien? In many nations, large majorities hold that one, some or all of adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, apostates and blasphemers should be flogged or executed. If their governments ignore the popular will in these cases I am glad, as it seems to me that there are some things that it is never legitimate to impose on people; regardless of the support for such impositions. I would also back efforts to change their minds, of course, but if they failed it would not sway me towards the acceptance of murder or mutilation.

        Refusing to institute policies can sometimes increase support for them, that is true, but it is not always the case. According to the BBC, support for capital punishment has, while remaining high, decreased over the decades. It depends on other social circumstances.

        All of this means that the line between legitimate democracy and unwelcome ochlocracy is hard to place, of course, but I feel it must sometimes be lowered.

  5. bruce madeiros

    I have recently started reading a book by an American Muslim academic Nader Hashemi called ” Islam,Secularism and Liberal Democracy” . Although it was written 4 years ago Nader, as part of a conference, at the beginning of this year , gave a talk which was based on the first chapter of his book which is on utube. To me he is simply saying that our modern secular society may well be horrified by the despotism that is associated with the so called Arab spring . I would suggest despotism by both sides whether it be Morsi Islamic vision of Egypt or the army’s despotic action in removing him. But Nader is suggesting that history is simply repeating itself with the despotism of religion in the 16th century in Europe to the despotism in the 21st century in the Arab world. Sadly just as it took the 30 years war to sort out the religious mess in Europe who knows how long it would take to sort out this modern religion mess in Arab countries

  6. Jesse Kamphuijs

    The choice is not just between democracy and tiranny; the abyss of anarchy looms a well.that said, democracy only functions within a state of rule of law, rule of law being the essence, with minority rights, freedom of assembly and adopted speech,unbiased judiciary and limited state power. A revolution is legitimate if it abolishes capital punishment, said Camus, but if it leads to sanctioned murder of minorities, even according to popular sanction, then justice freedom parties show what cynicism can wreak… chaos. the goal of serious politics is an ordered state of affairs through the reach that goal politically needs strong institutions off cooperation, trust and truth finding.the road is long.good luck.

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