At 6 p.m. local time Wednesday, the Egyptian army overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, in response to nearly a week of violent protests and social unrest. Egyptian defense minister Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi announced that the military would temporarily suspend the constitution and prepare new parliamentary elections.
Shortly after, fireworks erupted over Cairo's Tahrir Square. Crowds cheered the military’s roadmap, and liberal opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei -- a Nobel Peace Prize recipient -- called event a new stage in the Arab Spring, the 2011 revolution that led to the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Dozens of countries throughout history have experienced military takeovers. In Latin America, the story is fairly common region: There were at least 30 coup d’état attempts, 22 of them successful, in the region from 1945 to 1976. It’s a story that (despite big political, social and historical differences) can offer several valuable lessons.
Marxism vs. Religion
Obviously, there are significant differences between what happened in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century and what happened recently in Egypt. For one thing, religion did not play as central a role in Latin America's revolutions as it has in Egypt. The Hispanic world's chief rallying cries related to social and economic issues influenced by Marxism, and, later, by the Cuban revolution. In Egypt, meanwhile, the religious element –- exemplified by some of the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s party -— is an important source of discontent that, , is now pitting liberals against democrats.
Nevertheless, the army’s actions and the celebratory remarks that ensued from intellectuals like ElBaradei can be related to certain events in Latin America history.
“I think that in certain political moments, it can seem like an easy solution for a military institution to step in,” said Kirsten Weld, a Harvard professor who specializes in modern Latin American history. “But I don’t think that there are easy answers to the kinds of political divisions that you see in contemporary Egypt today, or to those that you saw in Chile in the early 1970s, or in Argentina in the mid-1970s.”
Human Rights at Risk
In 1973, right-wing and middle-class Chileans rejoiced at Salvador Allende’s death and the ascent to power of General Augusto Pinochet. (“This is a time of triumph and joy,” a truck-owner told the New York Times in the days following the coup.) In Argentina, in 1976, Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, welcomed the new military junta that deposed Isabel Martínez de Perón as a “gentlemen’s government.”
Years later, most of those who had hailed military intervention recanted their words and looked back at what happened with shame. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s regime, and the Chilean government in 2011 acknowledged the claims of more than 40,000 victims. In Argentina, the “gentlemen’s government” kidnapped children and pregnant women, and disappeared nearly 30,000 people, according to human rights organizations.
By 1980, Borges had already realized his mistake. “I find it impossible to ignore the grave existing problems related to terrorism and repression,” Borges told La Prensa. “Nothing will prevent me from speaking about those deaths and disappearances.”
In both cases -- and in most of Latin American coups -- military autonomy led to human rights violations that have a cast shadow over the region’s history.
“After a coup, the army doesn’t have any accountability,” said James Green, a professor of history and Brazilian culture at Brown University. “And that’s the danger: there is no reason to think that the military won’t do terrible things in Egypt now, much like they did in Brazil and in other Latin American countries.”
Without any checks or balances in place, military juntas in Latin America usually tried to solve the country’s issues by aggressively targeting groups they considered responsible for social unrest. In places like Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Peru the military’s solutions often involved disappearances, torture and murder.
“History shows time and time again that what the military does when they are in control is far from what is in the best interest of large parts of the population,” Weld said. “If you end up being part of the segment of the population that the military feels is part of the problem, then you might be targeted for extermination.”
There is no reason to assume that this will happen in Egypt. There, the army has set forth a road map for new elections, it has named the nation's chief justice interim president, and is reportedly favoring ElBaradei, a respected intellectual, as the leader of a transitional government.
A Democracy Dilemma
Nonetheless, it’s hard to forget that the army is ousting a democratically elected leader to supposedly promote democracy.
Morsi, who denounced the takeover as a military coup and rejected the army’s demands, was taken into custody on Wednesday, along with several of his aides.
People living in rural areas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s main electorate, have already expressed their concern over the event, and some are predicting a civil war.
More than two dozen people have been killed since Sunday, and on Wednesday hundreds were injured during protests and clashes with security forces.
As Green puts it, “You are playing with fire if you are using the military to establish a democracy.”