24 July 2013

Democracy in Egypt: one part military, one part mob

Here's something you don't see every day: the general who initiated the coup d'etat that deposed President Morsi of Egypt is calling on citizens to hold mass demonstrations this Friday. That sort of thing is usually the last sort of thing a coup leader wants, but General el-Sisi is appealing to the masses for a mandate, in the face of continued protests from the Muslim Brotherhood and other friends of Morsi, that apparently can come only from the street. The general, who supposedly is not the ruler of Egypt, wants to remind the world that the opponents of Morsi still outnumber the former president's supporters, as they did last month when their demonstrations inspired (or emboldened) the army to topple the president. The Brotherhood, for its part, accuses el-Sisi of inciting civil war. I can see where they're coming from, considering their continued claim of legitimate rulership, but to accuse the nation's army of inciting civil war is also vaguely reminiscent of Confederates shelling Fort Sumter and saying Lincoln started it.

Arrangements are presumably still under way for new elections and the re-establishment of representative government, but Egypt now has democracy in its rawest form, as el-Sisi implicitly concedes in his appeal to the masses. Democracy in its rawest form is a matter of who shows up, which makes Friday a kind of referendum on the Egyptian coup. This observation may only encourage the perception that Egypt is a politically primitive country going through the birth throes of democracy, but the country actually combines what might be described as a backward "civil society" with some state-of-the-art features of 21st century politics, particularly rampant social media and irreconcilable partisanship. Egypt is of interest to the rest of the world not only for its geopolitical significance, however perceived, but also because it illustrates the perils not of political backwardness but of political modernity. If partisanship is a major part of Egypt's problem -- if the sticking point is not so much Islamism as it is distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular -- that can't be blamed on backwardness. Some outside observers may like to say so, arguing that Egypt's parties simply need to learn to take turns in power without fighting to the death or assuming that every election is mortal combat. But it could be argued that some countries with long established traditions of party politics and peacefully contested elections are starting to look more rather than less like Egypt as partisanship in those places grows more irreconcilable, at least on the rhetorical level. Egypt might seem stuck in the past in some ways, but the troubled nation may also be giving us a look at our own future.

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