How Tahrir Square betrayed itself

How Tahrir Square betrayed itself

There is no legitimate reason to sugarcoat what just happened in Egypt: It is a military coup against a democratically elected government. Hence I condemn it wholeheartedly. I also think it has been a disastrous step for Egypt and even other nascent democracies in the Muslim world.

This is not because I have been a great fan of the deposed President, Muhammed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood which supports him. I call their ideology “Islamism,” and have been a vocal critic of it. I see it as a bad synthesis of Islam, in which I believe, and authoritarian politics, to which I am opposed.

Yet I have also been arguing that one of the best ways to deal with Islamism is to include it in the democratic game. The other way, exclusion and oppression, has been tried by Hosni Mubarak and a bunch of other Arab dictators, and only further radicalized the Islamists. One of the products of the torture chambers of Mubarak was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the mastermind of Al-Qaeda, who decided that an armed struggle was necessary not only against “the Pharaoh” but also his patrons in the West.

Besides such perils of exclusion, there are also benefits of inclusion: Allow the Islamists, who have pursued a utopia arguing, “Islam is the solution,” test this “solution,” fail, and learn from it. Even their will to impose “morality” should be allowed to go through such a trial-and-error phase, just like the alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920’s. (It was not a military coup which ended that prohibition, but the lesson taken from Al Capone and many other unpleasant results of banning booze.)

The non-Muslim Brotherhood segments of Egyptian society, however, did not show the wisdom and patience to allow the elected Islamists to govern according to the rules of the game. Of course, they had every right to hit the streets and raise protests, which would have been a very democratic action that could have forced Morsi to reconsider some of his policies and perhaps even call for early elections. (In fact, early elections would have been his lifesaver, as I argued until the last minute before the coup.) But they made a historic mistake by calling for, and cheerfully standing behind, a military coup.

This is especially true for Egypt’s liberals, whose vision is much closer to mine than that of the Muslim Brotherhood. (I am not even considering the Feloul, the leftovers of Mubarak, who has zero legitimacy.) The liberals’ reaction to the Brotherhood underlined an important tension in the Muslim world, the one between liberalism, a minority view, and democracy, a system that empowers the majority. And in fact, I, too, would take sides with liberalism first rather than democracy. But a liberalism that welcomes a military coup both betrays some of its own principles and also delegitimizes itself in the eyes of many.

That is why Tahrir 2013 is very different from Tahrir 2011. Two years ago, masses, with their own power, overthrew a dictatorship that had never allowed free and fair elections. But now, the anti-Morsi masses in Tahrir, and elsewhere in Egypt, sided with a military coup against a president who was elected thanks to free and fair elections. They, unfortunately, betrayed the very democratic revolution they once spearheaded.