Egypt’s Authoritarian Slope [Analysis]

Imagine the following scenario.

A president is democratically elected. Those who know him and the party he represents know that he will use his mandate to try and implement considerable changes to his country’s public life. Those who have always supported him applaud his every move. Many others, who voted for him with the hope that he might lead a moderate government, feel betrayed. The opposition despises him, planning his removal from power from the very beginning.

The president makes some foolish mistakes, some out of hubris, and some out of naïveté. These mistakes soon lead to social crisis. For different reasons, his country suffers a series of shortages and its main industry starts going through a rough patch. People take to the streets in protest. At one point, almost 1% of the country’s population marches in the capital, demanding the president’s resignation.

The private sector and some foreign governments start pressuring him as well: it’s time to go, they tell him. Still, he clings on to power: he knows full well his government gained legitimacy through a democratic vote and he has no intention of stepping down. The army grows impatient and issues him an ultimatum. The president decides to ignore it: somehow, he hopes to save his government. But the army feels it has the people’s backing and decides to act. A coup d’etat follows. The democratically-elected president is deposed.

Let me now ask you: Would you support this turn of events?

If your answer is “yes,” you have just sided with one of Latin America’s most infamous, bloody and universally condemned coups d’etat, that of Salvador Allende’s government, which happened in Chile almost 40 years ago.

Granted: The implicit comparison with Egypt is not entirely fair. Chile in 1973 is not Egypt in 2013, and Salvador Allende most certainly was not Mohammed Morsi. Still, both situations share enough coincidences to illustrate the very complex dilemma the world faces when it comes to Egypt after last week’s coup.

The first thing one should do when thinking about Egypt is separate the virtues and flaws of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency from the way his government was deposed.

As to the former: Besides Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be difficult to find any reputable voices willing to defend Morsi’s actions. By all accounts, Morsi’s brief presidency was an example of corruption, cronyism and an astounding tone-deafness. Morsi headed a government mainly interested in furthering the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and religious agenda, laying waste to Egypt’s secularity, perhaps the only virtue of Hosni Mubarak’s years in power. Morsi decided quite early on that he would govern to protect the Brotherhood and its allies, ignoring calls to build a union government, a logical, desirable step for a country emerging from three decades of authoritarian rule. In the end, after only one year, Morsi had sunk his country into a financial and emotional depression. No wonder millions of people took to the streets!

Still, a majority of Egyptians voted for Mohamed Morsi in mostly fair and free elections. And that fact leads to an unavoidable debate: When and how does a society have the right to remove a democratically-elected government via thoroughly undemocratic means? Many voices in Egypt insist that last week’s military coup had the support of “the people.” It was, some say, “a democratic coup.” In a New York Times op-ed, Egyptian journalist Sara Khorshid explained it so: “Yes, this is a military coup. But without people power, no change could have taken place.” Khorshid should explain how and who decides when “people power” is sufficiently vehement and clear to warrant the intervention of a country’s armed forces. Truth is, the plea of trusting “the voice of the people” (who defines it? Who interprets it? Who and who acts in its name?) rather than the votes of the people leads to a dangerously slippery and authoritarian slope. It’s no coincidence, I guess, that Khorshid wraps up her Times’ piece with a rather remarkable sentence. “Whoever rules Egypt next,” she writes, “will be aware of the fate of rulers who lose the faith and support of the Egyptians.” The “fate” of those hapless democratically-elected leaders, Khorshid implies, will be the barrel of a gun, not the ballot box.

A Chilean politician, whose own family went through Allende’s last days in office, once told me that democracy’s problems are solved with more democracy, not less. Egyptians, who cheer for their army even as they trample on the rights of the opposition and kill Morsi’s supporters, should have that in mind, as should trigger-happy commentators elsewhere, who mistake the construction of democracy for its erosion.

Leon Krauze is the main anchor at Univision KMEX in Los Angeles.