There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of elections, constitutions, and the rule of law. One recalls that the USSR in its heyday had a beautifully crafted constitution guaranteeing individual rights and also held regular elections for the Supreme Soviet that permitted one to select from a slate of candidates approved by the government. Everyone was able to vote because it was illegal not to. When Soviet courts sent someone to the Gulag the legal proceedings were meticulously recorded and everything was done in full compliance with the law. Everyone knew that it was all a massive fraud, but there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Here in the United States, we have congressional elections every two years but the dominant parties that alternate in power have rigged and gerrymandered the process in such a way that only candidates acceptable to the corporate/military/political status quo can rise to the surface. We Americans also are blessed with the world’s oldest written constitution, which George W. Bush and Barack Obama have shredded, permitting the government to ignore with impunity most of the articles in the Bill of Rights. Bush even referred to the constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper." Americans can now be investigated by the government at any time and for any reason and are no longer entitled to personal privacy. There are secret courts and those accused of thought crimes including material support of terrorism can be arrested based on information they are not allowed to challenge, held without charge, and eventually tried or sometimes not tried subject to government fiat. So much for elections, constitutions and the rule of law.
So why is everyone complaining about the coup in Egypt and agonizing over whether it was a pure military coup d’etat or a genuine revolution phase two? Apart from the issue of whether Cairo will continue to receive U.S. military assistance, the result is the same. It is not exactly as if a staunch upholder of democratic rights was removed from office, nor did it constitute the violent end of a long tradition of free elections.
While I am strongly opposed to attempts to discriminate against or marginalize Muslims in any way because of their religion, what is referred to as political Islam is not exactly an unmixed blessing for those who, for whatever reason, do not fit comfortably within the prevailing traditional religious framework. Political Islam in its majority Sunni manifestation is bad news for those who adhere to the minority Islamic offshoots, to include Shi’as, Sufis and Alawites, as well as for Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Bahai, and those who would describe themselves as either atheists or secular. It is also strongly opposed by many thoughtful Sunni Muslims themselves who are repelled by its intrinsic intolerance.
Unlike most post-enlightenment Europeans and Americans, which would include the framers of the U.S. Constitution, many political Islamists do not necessarily accept either pluralism or the concept that there should be any separation between religion and government, which many in the west would refer to as secular democracy. On the contrary, they see their religion as the necessary template for good governance and social justice while they consider favoring true believers in their statecraft as the natural order of things. As one Morsi supporter put it "We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it." Accepted presumably as a means of obtaining power, which is the point at which a functioning constitution must fill the gap. The founders of the United States understood this very clearly. They considered democracy to be little more than mob rule unless it is tempered by a constitution that guarantees and protects the rights of the minority against majority tyranny.
So far, what we are seeing with the Arab Spring is indeed dictatorship by the majority, which contemporary political scientists have dubbed "majoritarianism" to mark a distinction from true democracy. In most countries, the former winners and losers have been reversed but are essentially adhering to the same old rules permitting anything goes when one takes power. One might note the example of "democratic" Iraq which held elections placing the Shi’a majority on top. One of the first things the new government did was ethnically cleanse the Sunnis while tolerating atrocities committed against the Christians. Even Turkey, which has a long though inconsistent democratic tradition, is similarly veering towards autocracy under the influence of its prime minister’s exclusive interpretation of the citizen’s responsibility to uphold what he considers to be God’s law.
Religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood frequently have an advantage in post-revolutionary elections because they are already established as an opposition to the government and have an infrastructure in the mosques. Secular parties must start from scratch. But opposing a dictator does not equate to knowing how to govern. As Fareed Zakaria explains it, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi accomplished the following: "Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been deceptive, avaricious and venal. The party promised that it would neither run for the presidency nor seek a parliamentary majority. It reneged on both pledges. It rushed through a constitution that was deficient in many key guarantees of individual rights. It has allowed discrimination and even violence against the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt. It has tried to shut down its opposition, banning members of Mubarak’s old party from all political offices in Egypt for life." A tone deaf Morsi also appointed a member of the once-violent Gamaa al-Islamiya, responsible for a massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor, as governor of that province. Press accounts also suggest that in the days leading up to his ouster Morsi eschewed any possible compromise either with the Egyptian Army or with the protesters’ representatives, indicating very clearly his belief that he was only answerable to his own supporters.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top down style of government has likewise offended many of his countrymen, even those who are religious, creating legitimate concerns that the country will gradually drift into the type of intolerance that characterizes self-consciously Islamic regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Erdogan, saying the demonstrators are "arm-in-arm with terrorism," has turned his police loose on the protests calling peaceful gatherings illegal, insisting that he will do whatever he wants. He has been emboldened by his intimidation of the once vibrant press, his arrests of journalists, and his imprisonment of numerous army officers on what appear to be trumped up charges. The fear of offending Erdogan has meant that the Taksim riots were largely unreported in the Turkish media, and the prime minister was able to implausibly blame the part that he does not control, online social networks, for the unrest.
Erdogan’s authoritarianism and his Islamist beliefs sometimes come together in a convenient fashion, resulting in frequently petty meddling in the way ordinary Turkish people live and do business. Turkish Airlines recently stopped serving alcohol on most domestic and some international flights and its stewardesses have been told to refrain from wearing makeup and bright colors. The drinking of alcohol in public and after certain hours has been banned to "protect new generations from such un-Islamic habits."
Pardon me if I appear to be insensitive to other cultures and belief systems in my critique of Morsi and Erdogan, and we should all remember that the United States is similarly not immune from the faith based demagoguery of its leaders. Pay heed to the quote attributed to Sinclair Lewis, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross" while thinking of Michelle Bachmann, for example. But if I were an Egyptian or Turk I would sure as hell be in the streets fighting for my right to be what I want to be without a man who claims to speak to God telling me that I have to conform to his values or face the consequences. This is why I back the demonstrators in Taksim and Tahrir Squares, even though they were seeking the removal of elected heads of state and, in the case of Egypt, a return to Army rule. To be sure, Morsi was guilty of incompetence as much as intolerance, but his denial of human dignity and individual rights was clearly a core issue for many of those who rose up against him, particularly younger Egyptians. Erdogan, who did nearly all the right things during the first nine years of his moderate Islamic rule, is marching down the same road, with personal hubris combined with a religiosity that rejects any possible contradiction and makes impossible any concession to alternative viewpoints.
Of course there is another backstory to developments in Egypt and that has to do with the possible U.S. role behind the scenes in the coup. At this writing it appears that the Obama Administration worked as an intermediary between Morsi and the Army but only had limited influence over the evolving situation. That is just as well as the Administration has shown no finesse in managing its own affairs let alone the affairs of others. The United States surely has genuine interests in Egypt, most particularly free access to the Suez Canal, but it is ultimately not our horse race. It is up to the Egyptian people, and also to all the other Arabs and Turks and Persians to make their own decisions and determine their own destinies and to do so in their own time and their own way. I am not suggesting for a second that I approve of the military taking control of any country because it so easily leads to the unintended consequences and extreme violence that one is seeing right now in Cairo, but, after all, it is Egypt we are discussing and it is the Egyptian Army that will eventually have to answer to the Egyptian people. If they cooperate and figure out how to do this whole elections and democracy thing, God bless them. If they don’t they will have to work out another way. Either way, it is none of our business.