Coup D’Etat Blues (But It Ain’t All Over Now, Baby)
Musical accompaniment: The Clash - Clampdown
In a move that seems glaringly obvious in retrospect, the Egyptian military orchestrated a magisterial consolidation of power last week. The recently elected Parliament, led by an Islamist majority, was dissolved and stripped of its power to draft a new constitution, just before the runoff in the presidential election. The army’s power grab also offers an important lesson in revolutionary politics: it is easy to focus on the alphabet soup of special interests that surface in the immediate aftermath of a revolution, but that diverts attention away from the logical heirs to the throne: those that hold the guns
With the benefit of hindsight, you can’t help but think that the army also had a hand in the disqualification of four major presidential candidates on April 14th. Most significant was the dismissal of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate, whose poll numbers were rising alarmingly fast. His disqualification meant the ultraconservative Salafists would have to coalesce around the main Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. In late April, Morsi was only polling 3.6 percent, according to the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies. With a unified Islamist front, he would go on to win 24.8 percent of the vote in the first round and is believed to have won the runoff against Ahmed Shafik, the former commander of the Egyptian Air Force.
The liberal vote, on the other hand, never unified and diluted across a slate of candidates. However, the disqualifications still had a significant impact on liberals. The dismissal of Ismail’s candidacy insured that the largest voting bloc in the country would not splinter across several Islamist factions. Likewise, the disqualifications also ensnared Omar Suleiman, also a prominent representative of the Mubarak regime, who would have likely siphoned votes off of Shafik.
Egypt’s young liberals, the impetus behind the revolution, were left empty-handed in the runoff. Voting for an unapologetic representative of the regime they just overthrew was anathema, but they are also understandably distrustful of the Islamists. After all, it was these young activists who braved the initial crackdowns in Tahrir Square. The Islamists only moved in later, after the revolution’s cascading momentum became self-evident. The Islamists had, in effect, co-opted the liberals’ cause. Now, with even a veneer of choice eliminated for liberals, the army has essentially co-opted their frustration and fostered indifference in its place.
The most obvious parallel for the oscillations of Egypt’s emerging democratic-authoritarian political dynamic is Turkey. The legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the state, is still the foundation of modern Turkey. All Turkish leaders must show deference to his stewardship and trace the ancestral lineage of their policies to Kemalism.
The self-appointed heir and protector of Ataturk’s vision is the institution that birthed him, the army. Any Turkish politician perceived to have strayed too far from his teachings lives in nightly terror of an anxious knock on the door.
There have been three overt coups in Modern Turkey, and another by memorandum, which was something of a post-modern coup. General Cevik Bir remarked on the occasion of the soft coup, “In Turkey we have a marriage of Islam and democracy. (…) The child of this marriage is secularism. Now this child gets sick from time to time. The Turkish Armed Forces is the doctor which saves the child. Depending on how sick the kid is, we administer the necessary medicine to make sure the child recuperates”.”
Yes, the current Turkish government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has diverged far from Ataturk’s secular ideals. However, if economic growth were not so robust right now, the country would likely be due for its fifth coup any day now, which brings us to an important point. Turkey’s military has an atrocious human rights record, but it has implemented structural reforms in the Turkish economy, especially after the 1980 coup, that set the stage for today’s boom (Turkey’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world).
While the revolution gave a generation of Egyptians their first taste of free expression, free assembly, and that superlative intangible ideal, freedom, even its most ardent supporters acknowledge the country still faces pressing issues that threaten the basic rhythms of everyday life. Egypt’s economy, never robust to begin with, has stagnated since the revolution. This is partly because tourist dollars, a vital lifeline of the economy, have dried up, but is also the result of the endemic uncertainty that hangs over the country’s future.
Egyptians understandably experienced a mass outpouring of joy and optimism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Who could not help but be moved by the images from Tahrir Square? Unfortunately, Egyptian activists are coming to a hard realization: transformational change will be gradual and it is extremely difficult to dislodge an institution that has effectively run the country for over 50 years. In light of recent developments, my hope is that the country can weather its economic crisis under the shadow leadership of the junta. However, once the economy has regained stability, activists will be able make a renewed push to wrest power from the military. After all, if Turkey’s experience has taught one thing about political dynasticism, it’s that cash is still king.