Alphen, Netherlands. 5 July. In a master-class of under-stated British diplomatic fudgery Foreign Secretary (and fellow Yorkshireman) William Hague said of the Egyptian Army’s ‘soft coup’, “It’s happened, so we will have to recognise the situation will move on”. Implicit in that statement is recognition that if Egypt is to create Egyptian democracy 2.0 one would not ideally start from here to paraphrase that old Irish joke. So, what should the West now do?
Four principles should be adhered to: the Army return to barracks as soon as possible; a real process of political transition begins; the EU and US closely coordinate their support for the Egyptian people; and Egyptian democracy 2.0 is given every chance to succeed.
What is happening in Egypt is fundamental change. One in four Arabs is Egyptian. What happens in the most populous Arab state reverberates across the Middle East. However, Morsi’s removal opens a very uncomfortable question for those in the West who believe in democracy at all and any cost. Moreover, whatever one thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi he was elected with 52% of the popular vote, passed a constitution with the support of 62% of the electorate and has been forcibly removed from power by the Army after one year in office. And, do not be misled by television pictures of Cairo’s Tahrir Square – 70% of a conservative Egyptian population ascribe to some form of Islamism.
Although there is clear evidence that the now former President Morsi was resorting to ‘majoritarianism’, i.e. ruling (not governing) in favour of those who supported him and not the country as a whole, he remains the only legitimately elected president in Egypt’s history. Morsi’s crucial mistake was his November 22nd, 2012 edict granting himself almost unlimited powers. However, even given that mistake President Morsi should not have been removed from office after only year and for many of the 85 million Egyptians he remains the elected president. Like it or not the Muslim Brotherhood must play a role in any future political settlement. The alternative is unthinkable.
However, sustainable democracy can only flourish when a) the majority of the people across the political spectrum share sufficient commonality of values; and b) all the political parties that represent them are prepared to live by democratic rules. In Egypt neither of those preconditions for stable democracy exists. There is no apparent common ground between the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the many secularists and others who occupy Tahrir Square and who now ironically see the Egyptian Army as their political saviours. In other words Egyptian democracy will take time.
So, where does Egypt go next? There is a curious political phenomenon in the Middle East. In those Arab states experimenting with democracy almost everywhere anarchy is close to breaking out or killing people in large numbers. Whereas those Arab states that have retained a monarchy are for the moment relatively (and I stress relatively) stable.
How does this apply to Egypt? The first order principle is to put aside scruples about perfect democracy and work with those in power to stabilise the situation. Specifically, that means helping the process of political transition towards enduring political institutions, a free press and an independent judiciary. Nor is Egypt Syria even if experience of the past two years would suggest that unless the West pulls what levers it has Egypt too could descend into violence and no Egyptian deserves that. And the West does have some economic and military levers.
Therefore, instead of investing in recreating another ‘democratic’ version of a Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak, the strong man who becomes part of the problem, political transition should focus on making the Egyptian Parliament the centre of political gravity. Parliaments have rules for democratic engagement and those that flout those rules can be sanctioned as in any other parliamentary democracy. Here the EU could play a pivotal role.
The US has a critical role to play with the Egyptian Army leadership as Washington provides $2bn of military aid each year and it would be fanciful to believe the generals will not have a significant political role to play. However, some legitimacy for its role could be derived if its call for national reconciliation leads to the stability upon which parliamentary democracy rests. The Army would swear allegiance to a constitutional head of state but in whom little political power is invested even if such a leader needs to be a statesman recognised both nationally and internationally. Mohammed ElBaradei comes to mind.
It is of course up to the Egyptian people to decide their future. Critical to any successful transition will be sufficient people of an Islamist political bent willing to support Egyptian democracy 2.0.
What is the alternative? There can be no democracy without stability and instability in the Middle East can be murderous.