In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks summarized much of the debate on the military coup in Egypt that deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as falling into two schools of thought: “those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.” According to Brooks, those who emphasize process feel that Morsi’s government was democratically elected and enjoyed popular support. Therefore, they believe the “most important thing…is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.” In contrast, those who emphasize substance believe that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization rejects “pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity.” They are, the argument goes, fanatics and participation in a democratic system will not turn them into democrats, nor even tame them. Rather, they will damage the democratic system, and, thus, must be removed from office, even through a military coup.
Brooks goes on to side with the “substance” perspective, arguing that Islamist views are fundamentally incompatible with democracy and lend support to radical Islam, which he calls “the main threat to global peace.” Regardless of whether Brooks is correct, I’d like to play devil’s advocate and make an argument for the “process” perspective: a military coup does not simply threaten fragile democratic institutions, but also the political culture of the country for years to come.
To understand what this means, it may be helpful to take a look at Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s most unstable and protest-happy state. On the surface, the comparison may seem absurd: Kyrgyzstan is tiny, with only 5.5 million citizens, and Egypt is massive. But I can’t help wondering if some similar dynamics are emerging.
Interestingly, I’m not the first to make this comparison. In 2011, a number journalists and researchers were quick to compare the 2010 popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan that overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiev with the so-called “Arab Spring,” which brought hope for democracy to the Middle East. Roza Otunbaeva, Kyrgyzstan’s interim president after the 2010 coup, even suggested that the Kyrgyz revolution in some way sparked the Arab Spring.
As in Egypt, the revolution of 2010 promised a lot in Kyrgyzstan. An extremely corrupt and nepotistic president was overthrown and replaced by a pro-democracy interim president. In 2011, the country held democratic, albeit imperfect, elections and the voters overwhelmingly chose Almazbek Atambaev to succeed interim president Otunbaeva. More significantly, Otunbaeva peacefully transferred power to Atambaev—essentially a first in the Central Asia region.
Despite these changes, much has stayed the same or grown worse. Corruption is still rampant. The 2010 revolution destabilized the country and, with only a weak and divided interim government at the reins, Kyrgyzstan’s crowded, diverse south descended into four days of interethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that took approximately 470 lives, wounded thousands, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Additionally, in the aftermath of the conflict, Uzbeks, who made up the majority of the victims, continued to face acts of violence and discrimination at the hands of the local authorities. The unrest demonstrated the weakness of the central government and highlighted the strength of local leaders. Melis Myrzakmatov, the Kyrgyz nationalist mayor of Osh, hammered this idea home, often bucking Bishkek’s authority and even openly expressing his desire to move the capital of the country to Osh.
However, there was, perhaps, an even more dangerous problem. The 2010 coup was Kyrgyzstan’s second revolution in 5 years and, thus, created a precedent that aggressive protest, civil disorder, and revolution are the instruments of political change in Kyrgyzstan—rule of mob seemingly replaced rule of law.
In Kyrgyzstan, we’ve seen this over and over again in the past three years: protestors regularly seize government buildings and highways to express their anger over various political issues. If a fight breaks out between a Kyrgyz and an Uzbek (or Tajik) in the south, it can quickly turn into an armed brawl with hundreds (or even thousands) of participants. On October 3, 2012, three parliamentarians of the nationalist Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party, including former presidential candidate Kamchybek Tashiev, organized a rally of over 1000 people outside the parliament building to demand the nationalization of Kyrgyzstan’s most significant economic asset, the Kumtor gold mine. The three politicians and several of their supporters then tried to scale the building’s fence in order to take matters into their own hands and seize power.
Though they failed to carry out the coup and were arrested, the incident highlighted the power of protest and mob action in Kyrgyzstan. One guest blogger on this site, noting that the country’s “ruling coalition has remained in place and the president has promised to uphold the law,” suggested that this moment might be “a glimmer of hope.” That could be true, but the logic is rather perverse: attempts on the government are so common and successful, that we find hope in their failure.
Unfortunately, the law wasn’t upheld. In the end, the three Ata-Jurt politicians were given short sentences of 6 months to a year, but were acquitted at a later hearing last month, when the court gave in to public pressure: supporters of the three politicians had even thrown bottles and shoes at the judge and prosecutor. More significantly, the politicians’ supporters had also briefly seized the regional government building in Tashiev’s home Jalalabad region and occupied the key highway connecting the north and the south of the country for four days.
By the way, that wasn’t the only protest focused on the Kumtor mine. In May of this year, hundreds of angry young men seized the road leading to Kumtor and cut the power at the mine. Dozens were injured, but the protestors eventually dispersed when the government promised more investment in the local infrastructure. It’s safe to bet that this won’t be the last protest against Kumtor.
So how do the events in this little country relate to Egypt?
Perhaps in this way: like Kyrgyzstan, Egypt has now seen two revolutions, countless protests, and much unrest resulting in loss of life and injuries. The most recent protests, even larger than the ones in 2011, set a dangerous precedent: a democratically elected government could be removed if enough people took to the streets for a long enough time and expressed enough anger. The end of Muslim Brotherhood rule was followed by the arrest of the movement’s officials, a decisively undemocratic move. Egyptian Islamists are, unsurprisingly, very angry and they are protesting. Most recently, more than 50 people were killed and over 400 injured in clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of Mohamed Morsi. I don’t buy the widespread idea that the protests leading up to the coup were completely divided between secularists and Islamists. As an Egyptian acquaintance emphasized on Twitter, she, like others, is not secular, but also not a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. Yet, the divide is significant and there’s a real risk of political and social fragmentation and, most dangerously, a loss of faith in the democratic system. As Ashraf Khalil, a Time Magazine contributor, told NPR, protestors at a pro-Morsi rally before the ouster said they were “willing to die” for their cause. He noted that Islamists feel “very sincere that they tried, they voted and that they were sold some sort of fraudulent vision of democracy.” Politics always has losers, but the difference here is that the losers feel the system was inherently unjust—and they have a point.
Egyptian Islamists now likely feel that rule of mob has superseded rule of law, and they may give up on democratic participation. They are already choosing to take to the streets. And if the group of secularists, liberals, leftists, and some Islamists who broke with the Brotherhood cannot form a coalition behind a new leadership, the dissenters may also chose protest. And if the new government cannot alleviate the economic problems that have been caused or exacerbated by 2011’s revolution and this new unrest, how will dissatisfied citizens express their grievances? Will they wait and go to the polls, or will they take to the streets and demand an end to this new government?
No one can predict the future, but we can read the signs: protests in Egypt have overthrown the government twice. Chaos has defeated order. Political and economic grievances aren’t expressed at the polls, but in the streets. Once set into motion, a democracy should sustain and support itself without outside interference. Citizens vote for their leaders, then vote for new ones if they aren’t satisfied with the old ones. Protest may have a role to play, drawing attention to a problem or influencing public opinion, but it should be a means of preserving the democratic system, not destroying it. In Egypt, this hasn’t happened. The military, reacting to the protestors, decided to hit the “reset” button on the democracy machine. After two resets, a third one looks more and more possible.
There are obviously significant differences between Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. Most notably, the army hasn’t played such a critical role in Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions, whereas in Egypt it seems to be a force interested in maintaining stability. Also, Egypt is a significantly more populous and economically developed country than Kyrgyzstan. Still, Kyrgyzstan provides a prime example of the dangers of a political culture in which protest is used to remove the government and “reset” the political system. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. One revolution may be necessary to end a corrupt and authoritarian political system and implement a democracy. But, after a second coup, Egypt runs the risk of becoming more like Kyrgyzstan: a country where extraordinary measures are frequently the political weapon of choice.
Photo by RFE/RL