A coup is underway in Egypt. For the second time in two years, the Egyptian people have risen up and ousted the leader of their country. While the Arab Spring of 2011 may have been interpreted by the outside world as a sign of Egypt's commitment to popular governance, this week's uprising demonstrates that the Egyptian people, by and large, may be less committed to the rule of law than we thought. While Mohamed Morsi's ouster is certainly not something worth grieving over, the act of deposing a popularly elected leader less than a year after he was put in office sets a dangerous precedent that could well plague Egypt for years to come.
If you find it peculiar that a self-described realist who advocates for a robust and unapologetic American foreign policy finds himself sympathizing with an Islamist leader of a vital American ally, well, I too am not sure what to make of my thoughts on this matter. For the United States, it is difficult to see how the Egyptian people rejecting their former Islamist-in-chief is anything but positive. And yet... this is not necessarily positive. Why? Because the ousting of a popularly elected leader may happen again and again in the future, and given the option between a stable Egypt with a popularly elected Islamist in charge and an unstable Egypt where the citizens take to Tahrir Square every couple of years and overthrow the government, I think we ought to lean towards the former.
Which brings us back to why we should all be a bit alarmed by what is going on in Egypt right now. Whereas Hosni Mubarak was basically an autocrat who ruled a nation whose citizens had few meaningful chances to check the ways in which he used his powers or decide whether he ought to have power at all, Morsi was a despot of the popularly elected variety. After overthrowing Mubarak, the Egyptian people went to some pains to create a system that would both empower the people to select their own leaders while simultaneously empowering the leaders who were elected to act on behalf of their mandate. For any country to establish an enduring system of democratic governance, its citizens must develop an allegiance to their particular system of choosing leaders.
The Egyptian people created such a system of rules, and they elected Morsi to a four-year term. Yet less than a year into that term, a large number of Egyptian people decided that Morsi was an Islamist hack, and that he was going to take their nation to hell on a speedboat if they let him to stick around. But rather than beginning a campaign to unseat him in the next election, the Egyptian people took to the street and demanded that he leave… and the army, which apparently acts as it sees fit when it sees fit, is effectuating the people's wish. This may work today, but it speaks to a political culture that values outcomes at the expense of process. This is a recipe for civil wars and unending instability.
What sets democracy apart from anarchy is not so much the democratic societies elect the best leaders. It is that democratic societies work through the system to make changes when they do not. That is why Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were not tossed from office by a mob despite the fact that both were extremely unpopular at various points in their respective presidencies. Egypt is going down a very different, and very worrying path.