Talking Kyrgyzstan in Egypt

Post image for Talking Kyrgyzstan in Egypt

by Matthew Kupfer on 7/8/2013 · 5 comments

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

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 13 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focused on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and a graduate student at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. A witness to the 2010 interethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, he is particularly interested in conflicts and interethnic relations in the former Soviet Union. Matthew's research and writing has covered topics as diverse as the interethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, women's rights in Central Asia, the history of genocide accusations in the former Soviet Union, and the Ukraine Crisis. His work has been published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Moscow Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,, and Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Kupfer.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Chris Rickleton July 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Matt, this is a great post and along the lines of this one [] which encapsulated the awkward feeling I have about the approval (admittedly sometimes a cautious approval) with which “liberal” publications and mainstream media outlets have covered Egypt’s coup. Just a couple of the many problematic moments in that coverage are:

1) The fact that the army has gone from being covered as a villainous anti-democratic institution to a swift arbiter of ‘justice’ overnight.

2) That the anti-Morsi camp have a better Twitter presence than the brotherhood so those western journalists that do “engage with Egyptians” have done so lopsidedly.

As you note, rule of law is central to democracies, whether “liberal” or “illiberal”. Some Kyrgyzstanis express surprise that their country isn’t “free” in the Freedom House rankings (not that these are the last word in what constitutes a democracy and what doesn’t) given that they now have a President that WILL leave when his term is up, a constitution that reduces executive power, oversight boards packed with civil society types sitting on every ministry and government body, and a media free to print what it wants. They also correctly argue that the Bakiyev family was intolerably corrupt, habitually violating the rule of law themselves (including elections) and generally bent on turning the country into a piggy bank for family and friends.

One political analyst that used to write sensible stuff even connected the decision to consider Kyrgyzstan “partly free” with Bishkek’s decision to get rid of the US airbase.

The problem is that freedom ranking organizations can’t close their eyes to the other ghastly side of the picture: that the vast majority of people locked up for crimes related to the ethnic violence in 2010 come from the minority that fared the worst in those clashes, and that Kyrgyz opposition figures trying to overthrow the government can do so with impunity. The parliament meanwhile constantly tries to expand the bounds of its constitutional authority: the same habit the executive had in administrations past.

Egypt’s divisions are different of course, but you have to call a robbery a robbery, even if you wouldn’t have a beer or Twitter-chat with the person that has been burgled.

Given the broad variety of democracies in the world, championing “substance” over “process” amounts to a kind of imperialism based on the idea that we have a monopoly on what democratic “substance” should constitute.

This part of your piece hits the nail on the head both in terms of the argument for “process” and the risks of ignoring it.

“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.”

Matthew Kupfer July 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Chris, thanks for your comment. I think one of the difficulties that liberals face in reacting the events in Egypt is that they have very mixed allegiances here. On the one hand, they are definitely not fans of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideology. On the other, they also dislike authoritarianism. For them, it’s a no win situation. Do you stand up for your civic principles or your social beliefs? This is basically also the position in which the US government finds itself. The Obama administration half-heartedly endorsed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood because they had won in the elections. Now that Morsi’s been removed, Obama realizes that this is probably in the US’s best interest, so he isn’t calling the coup a coup.

Rakhat Zholdoshalieva July 10, 2013 at 8:18 am

I am neither a political scientist nor a sociologist of social movements, but I can clearly see the analysis shaped by the dominant perspective of ‘modern civic protests’, which is contrasted by the ‘mob mentality’ of the Kyrgyz and Egyptians. The ‘law’, which you are talking about is weak because the population does not see its contextual relevance, the laws that are cut-and-pasted from the other countries – often so-called western democracies – cannot incorporate local interpretations of morality, order, and harmony. I think someone should examine Kyrgyz protests in particular a bit differently than the conventional political science or sociologist of social movement paradigms.

Matthew Kupfer July 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Rakhat, thanks for your input. Having reread this comment since I answered it on Facebook, I’d like to add that I don’t think “modern civic protest” and the “mob mentality” are necessarily divided on an East/West or global North/global South basis. Nor do I even think that they are necessarily different things. An organized peaceful march or picket is a civic protest. It becomes “mob mentality” when the participants become violent or destructive, carrying out violent acts that they would never do individually. These destructive protests exist in many European and Western countries too–Greek protests of economic austerity, the 2010 UK student protests of tuition hikes, etc. I don’t think that all Kyrgyz protests represent a “mob mentality.” Certainly, there are many peaceful protests in Kyrgyzstan, but after two revolutions and many violent or socially and economically disruptive protests (i.e. Kumtor, seizing government buildings, occupying the highway), there is often a threat of chaos, intentional or unintentional, behind the protests. That’s my main point in this article: if democratic institutions are not respected in Egypt and large, chaotic protests prove to be a successful means for taking control of the government when democratically elected politicians make choices you don’t like, then this may have an dangerous effect on the political culture of the country. Such protest may become the go-to method of politicking for many people and protests will always be seen as agressive action with potential for violence.

I also agree that democracy isn’t a natively “Egyptian” or “Kyrgyz” idea, but I think that saying the idea can’t incorporate enough local interpretations of morality, order, or harmony doesn’t give enough credit to the people of Kyrgyzstan or Egypt. It’s true that there are people in both these countries who do not support democracy in the “Western” sense, but I do think that people in Egypt understood how democratic elections work and what winning an election means. In the end, this doesn’t come down to whether Egyptian democracy would incorporate the Egyptian culture or worldview (if one can speak about these things in broad terms), but whether the people who lost the election were willing to accept the fact that they were stuck with the Muslim Brotherhood until the next elections.

That said, I’m definitely all for the examination of Kyrgyz protests from new and different perspectives. I certainly think this would give us greater knowledge of the internal workings of and local perspectives on these protests, something that is not well understood at the moment.

Abror Karimov July 14, 2013 at 6:49 am

What kind of “Law” we need in order not to take some cash from politicians and block the roads, and occupy government buildings? Without examining and going “deep research” of our protests it is clearly visible that what we have here in Kyrgyzstan is OCHLOCRACY -mob rule is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of legitimate authorities. . What I am agree with you that our Law are weak, especially our Criminal Code! For 20 years our country “playing a Democratic Island in Central Asia” game, but in reality it is not, we are failed to build a functional State (with its relevant strong institution), nothing to do with “Arab springs” (or awaking whatever it named). For 20 years we are having 2 Coups (I can’t call them as a revolutions, for me it is pure coup by using mobs) and inter-ethnic conflicts, and I am afraid that coups that we have becoming like a “traditional”.

Previous post:

Next post: