We all walk around with paradigms and categories in our heads, and when an event takes place, we slot it into one of those categories. It gives new things the feel of familiarity and makes them less alien and frightening. But sometimes, things are new; or at least they have the potential to be. And I think what happened in Cairo this week is one of those things—if it’s not too odd to put it this way, a good military coup (otherwise already being called a “people’s coup” by its backers) that, while undeniably deposing a democratically elected leader, may yet paradoxically put Egypt on a quicker path to democracy than a full presidential term from Mohamed Morsi ever could have. And I’d like to see Democrats, from Obama on down, be more open to this possibility.
There is a history here that makes a reflexive negative response to a military coup understandable. That’s Pinochet’s Chile, the USSR in Czechoslovakia and Hungary; mostly, to left-leaning Americans, it’s the U.S.-sponsored coups of the Cold War era, like Guatemala, Iran, and Indonesia, in addition to the aforementioned Chile (and several others). The mere phrase sets off all of these ominous bells (to liberals; American conservatives, obviously, were pretty much perfectly happy with every one of these coups and made them happen). More important is the fact that Morsi was chosen by the people in a free and fair election. For some folks I’ve seen on Twitter, this one fact seems to begin and end the conversation.
Here are the responses. First, while this was certainly a coup, the U.S. wasn’t behind it; the people in that square were. That’s different and new. This coup can certainly turn sinister, because the guys with the guns are in charge now and guys with guns can generally do what they want to do. But so far, this is an instance of a people who weren’t being respected making their voices heard.
This leads into the answer to Morsi’s election. That is not to be dismissed, clearly. But it’s also the case that elections aren’t the only thing that makes a democracy a democracy. As I tweeted on July 4, Morsi is no democrat and doesn’t deserve our democratic support. You can’t declare a state of emergency, arrogate to yourself the concomitant powers, let your police brutalize and torture hundreds (he was in office just shy of a year, remember, so that’s kind of a lot), and then, when push comes to shove, say, “But hey, I was elected!”
At the very least, the one thing Obama can do is press the point that democracy isn’t just about elections.
Democracy is about practices and habits of mind that produce democratic behavior. And this is what the people in Tahrir Square want. It’s what they wanted in February 2011, and it’s what they want now. They’re clearly desperate to get out from under both autarkic despotism and religious extremism and live a fully democratic life. To them, the revolution that commenced in February 2011 is only half-complete (at best). To anyone who wants to build his case on the fact that the people spoke at the ballot box, one can also reply that they spoke, and far more plangently, in the square over the past week.
I know all the caveats, and they’re extremely serious. Will Adly Mansour be a stabilizing force; will the military relinquish power; will it permit the Brotherhood to reenter civic life and participate in the next elections, which it must (with no show-trials, etc); will violence erupt between the army and the Brotherhood; will the country’s liberals get their act together and present an electable candidate, or will the Brotherhood—and, arguably, a more extreme variant than the one just deposed—simply win again; what will the regional fallout be? They’re all frightening questions, and they make clear how this could turn bad in the coming weeks and months.
But I see reasons to be a little bit optimistic. In 2011 the military saw that the Brotherhood was going to win, and it cut various deals to weaken real reformers. What if this time, the military, seeing the unpopularity of the Brotherhood, cuts deals with more democratic parties, parties that treat women and secularists and the Christian minority less brutally, parties that want things like a bill of rights? That will be a big step toward actual democracy. Military establishments want their power and gravy trains to flow without interruption; I doubt they care all that much with whom they make the deal, as long as the deal is made. The other reason to be hopeful is that twice now the people of Cairo have proven themselves to be a pretty potent historical force against very strong odds. What reason is there to think they can’t do it again?
I’d like to see American Democrats (and democrats) adopt this kind of hopeful but sensibly cautious posture toward these events. It was discouraging to hear Pat Leahy charge right out of the gate Wednesday saying, well, it’s a military coup, that’s it, cut off aid; his statement reflects, first of all, thinking in those old categories; and second, it echoes a posture, I’m told by one progressive foreign-policy specialist who has lots of conversations about all this with Democrats on Capitol Hill, that is growing: just disengage, who needs it. But it would be absurd to the point of immoral for the country that has spent decades talking up democracy (and often “delivering” it at gunpoint) to get out of the democracy business just as the people of one of the world’s most important countries (not just strategically, but historically) awaken and are roaring for it.
There’s not much Obama can do here. A president has to be careful. But at the very least, the one thing he can do is press the point that democracy isn’t just about elections. This is too little understood both around the world and in the United States, and moving comprehension of this fact more toward the center of human consciousness would be a fine legacy to leave on such matters.
Below Obama’s level, I am hit yet again by a reality that has struck me many times in the recent past: where is the Democrats’ John McCain? Where is the Democrat who, when events like this happen, can step forward and say the things the president can’t say, describe with eloquence and credibility the liberal internationalist view, what America ought to be doing and standing for? It’s a serious shortcoming in the party and has long been so. It would be terrible, as was the case during Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005, to see the Democrats retreat and let the Republicans be the people the small-d democrats fighting for their rights look to.