Even if this military action to depose the elected president was a response to popular demand, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coup d’etat. It’s possible for a military coup to advance democratic development — but it’s rare, and the bar is pretty high. The decisions announced today by General el-Sisi place state authority back in the hands of three strong instruments of the old Mubarak regime : the army, the Interior Ministry and the judiciary. Thus, the burden is heavy now on the Egyptian military to demonstrate that the new transitional authority can and will govern in a transparent, restrained manner, and move the country swiftly back to democratic rule. Note that el-Sisi’s roadmap had no dates attached for a return to democratic rule.
The United States has a law on the books that demands an immediate cutoff of aid in the event of a military coup. President Obama’s statement Wednesday night expressing deep concern over the military’s decision to remove President Morsi tracks that legislative definition of a coup very closely, and I can’t help but think that’s deliberate. The law in place is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule — aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held. The law should be swiftly invoked in the Egyptian case, and used to hold the Egyptian military accountable for swift progress on their transition roadmap.
Both the Brotherhood and the transitional authorities have choices to make that could determine whether Egypt moves toward greater stability or toward civil strife. If the Brotherhood chooses to resist the coup violently, the state has the capabilities to crush their efforts — but the price will be heavy. Likewise, if the state attempts to go beyond removing the Brotherhood from the presidency, and tries to erase it from public life through arrests and purges, this is also a recipe for destabilizing social conflict. Vulnerable Egyptians, including the country’s religious minorities, are likely to be the greatest losers if this occurs.
Morsi governed in an exclusionary manner that derailed Egypt’s nascent democratic transition — the new transitional authority must not make the same mistake. The Muslim Brotherhood did well in elections partly because it captured years of pent-up protest votes — but there is also some significant segment of the public who feel that the Brotherhood best represents them politically. They, too, have a right to form and support parties that reflect their beliefs. Any attempt to ban Islamist parties per se, or to forcibly secularize the public sphere, will alienate not only Brotherhood members but that majority of Egyptians who tell pollsters that they believe politics should reflect the influence of Islam.
The police emerged as a political actor on Sunday, joining anti-Morsi protests and pointedly refusing to defend Brotherhood installations against mob violence. For the sake of Egypt’s security and democratic future, the police must be depoliticized and put firmly back under neutral civilian control. The police and security services were responsible for terrible abuses of power during the Mubarak regime and after. Thus, thorough reform of the Interior Ministry will be essential to ensure that the police and security services do not take advantage of this transitional period to institutionalize their autonomy and prerogatives — as the military did during Morsi’s brief reign.
Watch the salafi groups. After Mubarak’s ouster, a number of extremely conservative Islamist groups took the leap into formal politics — but skeptically, and mainly to prevent the Brotherhood from taking the whole Islamist electorate for themselves. These groups hold deeply undemocratic views about governance and some have violent pasts. Now that democracy’s been overridden in the name of defending "freedom," will salafi groups see a reason to stay in the political game ? Will those who abandon the field return to quietism, or to arms ? My greatest worry is that this coup, if followed by undue repression against Islamists, will drive the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists in Egypt. Egyptians have suffered enough from terrorism already.