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To understand the swift and dramatic demise of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader and what it might portend for the country’s future, it helps to take a broad comparative perspective. The manner in which the country’s military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, is by no means an isolated case. In fact, it fits rather perfectly within the model of a civil society coup, a concept I first described in a 2002 World Policy Journal essay that explained the brief removal from power of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez by a coalition of business, labor, and civic groups. Other scholars have subsequently applied the idea to other coups, such as those in the Philippines in 2001, in Ecuador in 2002, in Thailand in 2006, and in Honduras in 2009. All of these cases show that civil society coups are not the fix for democracy that they purport to be, which looks to be true in Egypt as well.
Endemic to new democracies, civil society coups entail the removal from power of an elected leader through sustained protest, usually with the aid of the military. Indeed, it is the partnership between civil society and the military -- not usually known for acting in concert -- that distinguishes a civil society coup from an ordinary one. More often than not, those behind the coup justify it by claiming that they intend to rescue democracy, which is paradoxical since they are, in fact, uprooting it. This is Tocqueville’s civil society gone rogue; rather than working patiently and discreetly toward improving the quality of democracy, it turns angry and restless and plots for sudden and radical political change.
In my original essay on Chávez’s removal from office, I identified three preconditions for a civil society coup. The first is the rise to power of a leader whose commitment to democracy is at best suspect. The second is a political apparatus that fails to meet public expectations about economic growth and stability, usually because of its corruption, incompetence, and neglect of the country’s basic needs. The third is the emergence of civil society actors -- trade unions, religious associations, and civic groups -- rather than formally organized political forces, which have either disintegrated or which never fully developed in the first place, as the main opposition to the government. The combined result of these conditions is the emergence of an adversarial relationship between an invigorated civil society and a delegitimized political system against a background of widespread societal discontent and the collapse of the rule of law. Under such conditions, disputes and political crises are solved on the streets rather than in the legislature.
All of these conditions materialized in Egypt. Once in office, Morsi wasted very little time showing his ambivalence toward democracy. Last November, he attempted to give himself extrajudicial powers that would have essentially put him above the law. He claimed that he needed these powers to get around a hostile judiciary that remains staffed primarily by holdovers from the previous regime. But Egyptians saw it as nothing more than a power grab. The following month, when Morsi pushed through a new constitution that dialed back women’s rights and enhanced the military’s power, among other things, many Egyptians felt betrayed.
Morsi’s brief time in office was also marred by economic turmoil. Living conditions in Egypt are worse now than they were under Mubarak. According to the IMF, before the revolution, 40 percent of the country lived in poverty. Now, 50 percent do. And in the weeks leading up to the coup, acute shortages of food, fuel, and other basic necessities followed one on top of the other. To be sure, Morsi inherited a very troubled economy. As Ibrahim Saif, an economist at the Carnegie Endowment, put it, the revolution left “a hostile environment for private-sector investment,” fueled by “a perceived risk of expropriation,” as well as damaging “taxation, stringent regulations, export and production subsidies, and high transaction costs associated with red tape.” At the same time, however, Morsi’s policies aggravated political instability and uncertainty. That, in turn, made it nearly impossible to restore the once vibrant tourist sector, shore up investor confidence, or convince international donors, such as the IMF and the World Bank, that the new democracy was on firm footing.
Finally, for the past year and a half, it has been difficult to discern who, exactly, comprises the opposition. That is a common characteristic of democratic transitions engineered from below, which tend not to generate a unified political opposition but, rather, a constellation of opposition groups whose divisions are bigger than whatever difference they may have with the government. That makes it hard to forge compromises between the government and its discontents, and even harder to construct a loyal opposition that counterbalances the party in power but channels people’s grievances through the political system. The emergence of a loyal opposition is just as important to democratic consolidation as an effective democratic leader. The disorganized nature of the Egyptian opposition was on full display during the protests that led to the military’s intervention, as a motley crew of pro-democracy groups came together with no more common purpose than driving the Muslim Brotherhood out of power.
There is an inherent tendency to view civil society coups as good coups (as opposed to bad ones masterminded by the military without the support of the masses). After all, civil society coups hold the alluring promise of resetting the democratization process by flushing out an experiment with elections gone awry and creating a tabula rasa upon which to create a new democracy. That is the view adopted by Egyptian liberals, who have been at pains to even avoid using the word “coup.” Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel-laureate diplomat, former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Egypt’s most prominent liberal, told The New York Times that “Morsi had bungled the country’s transition to a inclusive democracy.” He added, “As Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again, but hopefully this time we will get it right.”
But the notion that a civil society coup can restart democracy is wildly optimistic. Venezuela and the Philippines suggest two likelier scenarios. In Venezuela, waves of strikes followed the proposed nationalization of Venezuela’s national oil company (PDVSA). The military took Chávez hostage for some 48 hours before withdrawing plans to install an interim president and to call new elections, and accepting Chávez’s restoration. Forcing the military’s reversal was its realization that it could not contain Chavismo, the best-organized political force in the country, which had fierce loyalty to its founding leader -- a point driven home by violent counter-coup demonstrations that left some 20 people dead. Chávez ruled Venezuela for another decade, until his death, earlier this year, becoming more vengeful and authoritarian as he went. He also turned increasingly anti-American, since he blamed the United States for his ouster. Although the evidence of American participation in the Venezuelan coup is contested, the Bush administration did cheer Chávez’s ousting as “a victory for democracy” before correcting course after most Latin American governments had denounced developments in Venezuela as a coup.
The parallels with Egypt are worth noting. As in Venezuela, the coup in Egypt pushed from power the best-organized political force in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Chávez, of course, Morsi is not seen by the Brotherhood rank and file as the very embodiment of the movement. But so far the movement’s leadership is resolute in its insistence that Morsi be returned to power, suggesting that his restoration cannot be ruled out. “There is no plan B,” a spokesman for the Brotherhood said to ABC News, adding, “We either return the president back to his rightful place or they are going to have to shoot us in the street.”
In the Philippines in 2001, the military ousted President Joseph Estrada after four days of intense popular protests during the Second People Power Revolution, a name that paid homage to the People Power revolution, which ousted strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. After giving Estrada the boot, the military installed Vice President Gloria Arroyo as the country’s new leader. Arroyo, who served as president until 2010, had a rocky tenure. In no small part, that was because she was tainted by the illegitimate manner in which her predecessor had been deposed. She managed to survive several violent counterprotests by supporters of Estrada (who himself became a shadow figure that haunted Arroyo’s entire presidency), including a massive storming of the presidential palace by some three million protesters in 2001 who claimed to represent the Third People Power Revolution. In Egypt, finding an acceptable replacement to Morsi is already proving a challenge, as can be seen in the quick rise and fall of El Baradei as a potential interim prime minister.
Civil society coups are seldom, if ever, a good thing for democracy. Indeed, Egyptians might have been better off letting Morsi serve his full term in office rather than aborting his clumsy but democratic tenure. For now, Egypt might be lucky to wind up like Venezuela or the Philippines, since it could certainly chart a more tragic course -- a civil war -- a prospect that only looks likelier as violence against Morsi supporters continues. If the last few decades have taught observers anything, it is that democracy depends, in no small measure, on people waiting to defeat the incumbent government at the ballot box rather than in the streets.