Islamists launched massive demonstrations in Cairo after Friday prayers to protest the overthrowing of Mohamed Morsi, the nation's first freely elected president. The army placed Morsi and dozens of his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood under arrest, saying it was doing the "will of the people" after Morsi forced through an Islamist constitution that critics said ignored the rights of other groups.
The toppling of Morsi just a year after his inauguration marked a stunning and swift reversal of fortunes for Egypt's Islamists, who were banned from political life for decades under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, then won a sweeping victory in elections after Mubarak's fall. What does the bloody and messy collapse of Morsi's government say about the future of democracy in Egypt and the region?
Morsi's fate makes it easier for skeptics to argue that Islamists are not cut out for democracy. David Brooks at The New York Times posits that elections are a good thing when they deliver power to people who believe in democracy, but can be dangerous when they elevate followers of radical Islam. Once in office, Brooks says, Islamists "are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them":
Once elected, the Brotherhood subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process, concentrated power and made democratic deliberations impossible.
It's no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam. We've seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus. [New York Times]
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood certainly did not build a sterling record as democrats during their brief stint in power. But the abrupt and ignominious end to Morsi's tenure could end up confirming Islamists' suspicions that their opponents will never recognize their right to rule — even after a free and fair election. Here's The Economist:
[The coup] also sends a dreadful message to Islamists everywhere. The conclusion they will draw from events in Egypt is that, if they win power in elections, their opponents will use non-democratic means to oust them. So if they are allowed to come to office, they will very likely do their damnedest to cement their power by fair means or foul. Crush your opponents could well be their motto. [The Economist]
Furthermore, it's a mistake to single out the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic identity for criticism, says Jackson Diehl at The Washington Post:
The Islamic character of Egypt’s ousted government should not obscure the way the country resembles Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand and other developing nations in which free elections after decades of autocracy have brought a new elite to power. The new rulers typically represent previously disenfranchised poor and rural populations, who often don’t share the cultural values of the capital’s middle and upper classes.
Once in office, new governments made up almost entirely of novice officials frequently overreach. They battle with the old establishment in the bureaucracy, judiciary and media. They write new constitutions in an attempt to lock in their electoral advantage. They tread on civil liberties. And, more often than not, they badly mismanage the economy by adopting populist measures that cater to their political bases. [The Washington Post]
Genevieve Theodorakis at Counter Currents agrees, noting that secular regimes in the Middle East have hardly been better:
Though Islamists have long influenced the policymaking of Arab leaders, it is only since December 2010 that popular Islam has been provided with a first chance to directly dictate regional politics. Yet censorship, vicious retribution against government critics, and restrictions on women's rights have nevertheless characterized the policies of many secular Arab regimes from Morocco to Jordan since independence.
Under the rule of heavyweights such as Egypt 's Gamal Abdul Nasser and Tunisia 's Habib Bourguiba, the state was defined by a strictly secular agenda that silenced the voice of Islam in the name of modernization... In attributing authoritarian characteristics solely to Islam, we not only risk misunderstanding the problem, but also relinquish the opportunity to be part of the solution. [Counter Currents]
The question now is how the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of Egypt's Islamists react. As David D. Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard at the Times report, many Islamists have already given up on the democratic experiment in the wake of Morsi's ouster:
In Egyptian Sinai just hours later, thousands of Islamists rallied under the black flag of jihad and cheered widely at calls for “a war council” to roll back Mr. Morsi’s ouster. “The age of peacefulness is over,” the speaker declared in a video of the rally. “No more peacefulness after today.”
“No more election after today,” the crowd chanted in response. [The New York Times]
And a wholesale turn against democracy by Islamists is bad news for everyone.