Even before it was fully under way, the Arab Spring was seen by some Western analysts as the prelude to an Islamic Winter. The insidious subtext was that Arabs must choose between military dictatorship and despotism in the name of religion. The coup against President Mohamed Mursi in Egypt hints at a third possibility: a Military Summer of Chaos.
Speculation regarding the causes of the turmoil has been going on for weeks with Mursi featuring as central character.
Mursi was criticized in three ways.
His non-Islamist opponents, including the “remnants” of the previous regime, claim that he is trying to create an “Islamic” caliphate. Mursi, they said, was placing Brotherhood acolytes in as many key positions as possible while weakening institutions, such as the various courts, that dare challenge his options.
The second criticism, coming from some liberals, was that Mursi has been a do-nothing president, a puppet in the hands of the Brotherhood’s Star Chamber. Shunning the country’s real problems, such as mass unemployment and the breakdown of public services, Mursi has been shadow-boxing against imaginary “plotters against the nation.”
The third criticism came from some Islamists, including the Khomeinist propaganda machine in Iran. According to them, Mursi failed because he was not “Islamic enough”. On Tuesday, the daily Kayhan, published by Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei’s office, lambasted Mursi for having “missed revolutionary opportunities.”
According to the editorial, Mursi should have set up a “Revolutionary Coordination Committee”, modeled on that created by Ruhollah Khomeini during the uprisings against the Shah.
In a Khomeinist system, critics of the regime would be executed, imprisoned, or driven into exile. Militias would be created to crush protests against the regime. The regime would conduct fake elections, deciding who stands and who wins.
The problem with the analyses built around the concepts of an Arab Spring or an Islamic Winter is that they focused on the way a government is formed. The current Egyptian crisis, however, poses a different, and possibly more important, question: How is a government changed?
A glance at the contemporary history of most Arab states would reveal the importance of that question. In most cases change of government has occurred in three ways.
One way has been through the assassination of the ruler, a classic method that dates back to the dawn of Islam having reached its perfection under the Abbasids.
The second way is through military coup. That method, too, has a long history in the Arab and Islamic world. Numerous dynasties, including the Fatimids, the Dailamites, the Seljuks, and the Mamelukes seized power thanks to their control of armed groups within or on the margins of the system.
With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of several new Arab states centered on newly created armies, changing governments through military coups became an established method. Since the 1920s, Arab nations have experienced around 40 coups—from Oman and Yemen to Algeria, Syria, and Egypt.
The fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was also due to the same method because the Tunisian and Egyptian armies pulled the rug from under their respective despot’s feet.
The third method of changing an Arab government is through foreign invasion, an example of which was the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
The Arab Spring created the hope that another method might be developed: change of government through reasonably clean elections.
Before the Arab Spring only Iraq had experienced changes of government through this new method. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis managed to change government three times through election. However, today it is no longer certain they will be able to do so a fourth time.
Let us return to Egypt. It would be in Egypt’s best, long-term, interest to allow the method of changing governments through elections enough time to become part of the nation’s political culture. That would have meant, allowing Mursi to serve his term and, if he fails to convince a majority, chase him away in the next election.
Crowds in the streets, even in the hallowed Tahrir Square, will never succeed in either creating a government or changing a government on their own. Crowds are fickle beasts on whose back could ride all manner of unsavory characters. Crowds can morph into mobs, producing ochlocracy, rule by the worst elements of society.
Mursi has been kicked out because the armed forces, plus the police and the intelligence services, decided it was in their interest to see him go. And that is a victory for General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his associates in the high command, not for the Tahrir Square pasionarias shouting themselves hoarse.
Kicking Mursi out under the combined pressure of crowds and the military could be a setback for Egypt’s hopes of meaningful change. It could persuade Egyptians that the only way to change a government they do not like is through military coup. That would make the entire Egyptian state a mere branch of the army rather than the other way round. Egypt would be back to 1952 when Nasser was beginning to build his military dictatorship.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not defending the way Mursi governed, or failed to govern. All I am defending is his right, indeed his duty, to govern in accordance with his mandate. It is clear that a substantial segment of Egyptian society, maybe even a majority, reject what Mursi represents. But that rejection must be demonstrated through free and fair elections, not by fist-shaking demonstrations backed by pronunciamento by the top brass.