The overthrow of Egypt’s elected government poses difficult questions for anyone who supports democratic rule. While the military coup is regrettable, there is a bottom line here: The democratically elected government of former President Mohammed Morsi was not functioning in a democratic fashion. That makes it hard to mourn his political demise.
It was always going to be difficult to install democratic governments in the Middle East without first instilling a respect for democratic traditions. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had no such respect nor, given its Islamist nature, was it interested in developing it.
Like all authoritarians, it was interested in acquiring and preserving power to impose its own will on those it governs – even those who chose it in a democratic election. That was the true desire of the Morsi government.
Thus, while its empowerment was democratically sanctioned, its use of that power was a corruption of democracy – a development all too familiar to inhabitants of the Middle East.
That was not the desire of the protesters who helped topple Hosni Mubarak two years ago. They didn’t risk their lives to replace one form of oppression with another. They may not have been seeking an American-style democracy, but the point was freedom, fair enforcement of fair laws and a functioning economy.
With Morsi’s government, Egyptians got none of that. There was no acknowledgment of political minorities, no accountability to voters, no respect for due process of law or for the news media or even for basic needs like food and gasoline.
Thus, while Americans steeped in democratic tradition naturally recoil from a military coup, Egypt was on a path that would have led it ever further from the possibility of even considering those traditions. If Morsi’s removal isn’t something Western democracies want to cheer, it is at least something they can comprehend.
Whether it was a good thing will depend on what happens next. The military has promised new elections, and while there is reason to be optimistic that will occur, it is unlike a governing military to give up its power.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t see a need to worry, given its ability and willingness to intervene where, at least theoretically, it shouldn’t.
Electing a new government has to be the goal, though. As soon as possible, Egyptians need to go once again to their polling places to choose new leaders – ones who are not only elected democratically but who govern that way.
That government may not look like ours or function like ours – especially lacking civilian control of the military – but if it respects other points of view and holds itself accountable to its citizens, then Egypt will be better off than it has been for decades.