On July 3rd, Egypt singlehandedly led the world to reevaluate the meanings of “democracy” and “coup.” After the deadline to reach a compromise between the ruling party and the opposition had passed, the powerful and seemingly omnipresent Egyptian army overthrew Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, appointed an interim president, and outlined plans for a new constitution and elections. Almost every American media outlet scrambled to ask ‘can a coup ever be democratic,' as analysts attempted to make sense of what had happened in Egypt.
For Egyptians, this discussion of semantics and definitions is less important than the fact that Egypt's first democratically elected president had widely divided the country almost immediately after taking office, leading to continuous protests and clashes between his supporters and the opposition. Many liberal and secular Egyptians deeply resented what they viewed as a highjacking of their revolution as Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party put forth a constitution that failed to abolish military trials for civilians, limit the powers of the president, or protect minority rights — all while expanding the role of Islam in Egypt.
When asked about the events that led to the ouster of Morsi, Baher Reyad, manager at a food plant in Egypt said, “I am not an expert in law…[you may] call this intervention a ‘coup’ or ‘standing for the most basic rights of a nation,’ [but] it does not matter. All I can tell you is that, there have been masses–millions—in the street demonstrating against the declining economic, political, and social conditions in Egypt.” Two years after the Arab Spring that toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak and led to the election of Mohamed Morsi, Egyptians found themselves facing worsening economic times as unemployment rose, public institutions crumbled, a budget gap grew, a fuel crisis loomed, and currency reserves dropped.
Thus, the social and political climate in Egypt had been ripe for change for over a year when grassroots opposition groups began collecting signatures on a petition for Morsi’s removal. On June 29th, these groups announced that over 22 million signatures had been collected as they called for nationwide protests. According to Sara Abou Bakr in Daily News Egypt, realizing the mistake they’d made in electing Morsi, the millions called upon the army to “correct their revolution” and, after three days of protests, the army responded to the will of the people by overthrowing Morsi. Reyad could not agree more saying, “The [Muslim Brotherhood] and the president could not hear our voices, did not have pragmatic solutions to our issues, and insisted on excluding every form of opposition. One of the powers, the military, responded to us and supported our pursuit.”
In contrast, for Americans, coup, like democracy, is often black or white. One is inevitably a positive expression of majority rule, the other can only be the exact opposite. For Egyptians, these words are more nuanced as the value of each is carefully weighed against the value of freedom and dignity. In an op-ed for Daily News Egypt, Khaled Diab further explains: “All the hand-wringing over the unceremonious jettisoning of Egypt’s first democratically-elected leader overlooks the crucial rider that Morsi was also democratically ejected. Democracy is ultimately about the will of the people. Just as voters give politicians mandates, they can withdraw them—and they don’t need to wait to do it via the ballot box if the need is pressing, and they can deliver their vote of no confidence via the streets.”
Diab continues to say that, “Those who argue that the electorate should have kept their grievances for the ballot box ignore the fact that the street is a legitimate democratic forum—in fact, it is the purest form of direct democracy—as reflected by the constitutional protection of people’s right to protest in every mature democracy.
Already, interim President Adly Mansour has had to cancel his appointment of a secular Mohammad ElBaradei for Prime Minister amongst opposition from conservative members of his coalition, leading to further “hand-wringing” in the U.S. Whether or not elections will take place in a timely fashion, the army will forgo any further intervention in politics, and the next elections will usher in a leader that can unite all factions of the still deeply divided Egypt remains to be seen. However, one can imagine that Egyptians would put the question of whether or not a coup can ever be democratic to rest by telling Americans that, based on their experiences, neither is mutually exclusive.
France François is the founder of the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. Follow her on Twitter: @FranceF3