Egyptians have been jubilant that their autocratic and dangerously incompetent president, Mohammed Morsi, was removed from power one week ago. But they are also frustrated with lectures from American congressional leaders and some American journalists who have characterized the Egyptian people's popular uprising as an undemocratic power grab. The Obama administration has avoided the word “coup,” which would jeopardize under U.S. law the $1.3 billion in aid we provide to the Egyptian military—but expressed “deep concern” over the ousting of Morsi.
If there was one message I heard repeatedly in speaking to Egyptians who were active in the protests, it was this: “Stop calling our revolution a coup.”
Their president, the Egyptians note, was given the opportunity to meet the demands of the people but instead delivered a defiant speech making clear he would continue to rule in an undemocratic fashion. The military removed him, and Adly Mansour, the head of the Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court is now the acting president. He issued a decree Tuesday that calls for a constitutional referendum in November, followed by parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election in February.
Yes, this is messy. It’s not what Americans envision when they think about democracy. But the U.S. has been at this for centuries. It’s been a year for Egypt.
It’s important to remember that the military stepped in as a response to the outcry of the people. The legacy of Morsi’s short reign was an economy in freefall, electricity blackouts, and gas and water shortages. Morsi’s abuses were legion, but among the worst was a constitutional declaration that included the edict that “[t]he president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve and safeguard the revolution, national unity or national security.”
Twenty-two million Egyptians risked their lives to sign the “Tamarod sheet” opposing Morsi, which included their government I.D. numbers. “I was scared when I signed it,” one 30-something Egyptian mother of two told me. Egyptians have no memory of a government that doesn’t abuse human rights and repress the people with vicious impunity. This is not signing a Change.org petition. In Egypt, signing your name to a statement opposing the government is an act of immense bravery. A reported 33 million Egyptians flooded the streets to demand the ouster of Morsi, a number vastly greater than the 13 million votes that elected him.
The idea that because Morsi was democratically elected Egyptians should wait until the next election is simplistic and shortsighted. Lucy Shafik, who protested daily in Cairo with her entire family, said via email, “If we…waited out [Morsi’s] presidency for another three years, there wouldn’t have been a country to rule anymore.” Moreover, those who turned out to call for Morsi’s ouster didn’t believe there would be any more elections if he stayed in power. “One election, one time” is something this region has seen too many times.
In a May 2013 interview, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson was asked to explain how the U.S. was helping to address human rights violations, which the Egyptian interviewer pointed out had “risen considerably since Mubarak’s ouster.” Patterson replied that, “We do not agree with claims that human rights violations are worse than ever under the new regime. It cannot be ignored that freedom of expression has improved in a number of ways under the new regime, exemplified by the media and the freedom to talk openly and publicly chastise political figures. Look at the press, or any of the political talk shows on TV: Egyptians did not have such freedoms under Mubarak.”
Two months prior to Patterson’s statement, Bassem Youssef, a popular Egyptian TV comedian sometimes called the Jon Stewart of Egypt, was charged with defaming Morsi. The LA Times reported that “more of these complaints were brought in the first few months of Morsi's rule than in all of Mubarak's 30-year reign.” The same month as Patterson’s interview, prominent Egyptian youth leader Ahmed Maher was arrested for leading protests against the Morsi government.
The U.S. has had a real knack for getting on the wrong side of history in Egypt. Maybe it's time to change that.