Egypt welcomes back the generals

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi is out, and the military rules again

The boys are back in town
Fernando Menendez
On 8 July 2013 22:35

The first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history proved an abysmal disaster. The Muslim Brotherhood, long a strong center of opposition to Egypt’s many dictatorships, came to power in free elections and within a year succeeded in mismanaging the economy, threatening minority groups like Coptic Christians, endangering its peace agreements with Israel, and alienating the Egyptian business classes. 

At the US State department, the strategy of the world’s most powerful country was to hope it would go away like a bad dream.

For Islamic extremists, like the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood proved incapable of establishing a sharia state.  While for moderates and secularists, the Muslim Brotherhood and its government proved profoundly inept in running the country even as its rhetoric became increasingly harsh.

The notion of democracy long ascribed to by the Muslim Brotherhood and their confreres, is one of “one person, one vote, one time.”  Democracy, as Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan has argued, is like a streetcar: “you get off when you reach your stop.” 

In this context, democracy is only a means by which constitutions are opened up for change and once an authoritarian regime is installed there is no way back. That was the law of motion during the last year, as the Morsi regime used its democratic legitimacy to restrict individual liberty and rolled back the forces of modernity and tolerance.

During that time the Egyptian economy was in free fall.  Average Egyptians have watched as living standards have worsened. Overall economic growth has slowed down. Tourism, manufacturing and construction have yet to recover after several years of decline.

Unemployment at 13 percent does not reflect large levels of underemployment. Meanwhile, the government has mishandled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a multi-billion dollar loan agreement, aggravating a balance of payment crisis.

All of this goes into the pot that erupted into protests in the last couple weeks, bringing together a loose coalition of forces agreed on only one thing: Morsi had to go.

The problem, like in so many Middle Eastern countries, is that the options are lean. The country can continue down the path of Islamic reaction or the military will serve as the Aswan Dam holding back massive discontent and unrest.

The result is that a modern and open Egypt is now only attainable with the assistance of a military boot. Secular, Coptic Christian, and moderate Muslim Egyptians have long counted on the military to protect their values and their way of life. Those trumpeting democracy have come from the Islamic extremist wing of the political spectrum and have a base with the masses of poor Egyptians. This is an untenable situation. 

Egypt’s business classes also have significant ties to the state institutions and the military developed over many years of Mubarak’s rule. As a result, the forces of modernity, of economic progress and secular values are allied with the militarist security state. On the other side, the intolerant and reactionary Islamists have tapped into resentment and upheld the flag of elections and democracy.

A credible alternative to this Hobson’s choice is yet to be formulated in Egypt or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter.  Individual liberty is most secure where there are free markets and limited governments, not where states dole privileges to those best connected.

This latter approach builds resentment and, in time, will explode and turn on those viewed as a prehensile elite. Egypt’s liberals and democrats must stop hiding behind the soldiers and begin to articulate an alternative to an Islamic state, one focusing on peace, prosperity and political freedom for the vast majority.

At some point the military won’t be able to rescue modernity, and then the dam will burst for good.

Fernando Menéndez is an economist and principal of the Cordoba Group International LLC a strategic consulting firm providing economic and political analysis to clients

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