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Questions out of Egypt

The Egyptian Army suspended the constitution that was adopted last year after the 2011 revolution that toppled sit-tight dictator Hosni Mubarak. They then installed the…

The Egyptian Army suspended the constitution that was adopted last year after the 2011 revolution that toppled sit-tight dictator Hosni Mubarak. They then installed the President of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court as interim president and told him to organize fresh presidential and parliamentary elections within nine months.

It is understandable that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not want himself or any other General to head the interim government because that will spark charges that the army has returned to power. A pundit will however wonder why the head of the Supreme Court, what we call Chief Justice here, agreed to take over power after a military coup. Maybe those Nigerians who were vocally critical of Chief Ernest Shonekan for agreeing in 1993 to head the “ING contraption” will now have a rethink.
The great Egyptian Army lost face several times in the last two years, a serious matter to an Arab.  The army was Hosni Mubarak’s main power base but it could not protect him when revolutionaries stormed the country’s streets. Next, its then head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi took over as interim ruler but was stampeded to quickly organize elections and give way. It was no small disgrace to the Egyptian Army that the election was won by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had fought the army almost non-stop since 1928. The army’s attempt to hang on to some legislative powers was sternly rebuffed by President Morsi who went on to acquire dictatorial powers of his own. The army was further slapped in the face when one of Morsi’s first acts in office was to retire Tantawi and other Generals. After all these slaps, Morsi ought to know that the army was bidding it’s time for a sweet revenge. The opportunity came last week when over a million people poured into Tahrir Square in what has been described as the greatest human protest assembly ever. The soldiers would be fools not to seize a chance like that.
What does it mean to a ruler when so many people are demonstrating against him in the streets? If it is in Nigeria, the ruler is likely to think first and foremost that the protesters are motivated by envy or that some dark regional forces are sponsoring them. A typical African ruler is unlikely to think that a million people will not abandon their homes and their trades [if they have any] to demonstrate at a city square for days on end unless they are genuinely aggrieved. He will seek ways to crush them rather than listen to them.
The Egyptian demonstrators themselves, did it occur to them to wait another three years for Morsi to finish his term as the rules of democratic election ordain? Well, their own outlook is not that of a Western liberal democrat. For starters, the socio-economic and political backdrop of African democracy is very different from what obtains in democracy’s ancestral lands. Even the Greeks, who invented democracy, were out rioting in the streets last year against elected governments. Americans think there is a policy gulf between Democrats and Republicans. From an African viewpoint there is very little, if all there is to it is the desire by one party to raise taxes by a few percentage points while the other seeks to cut taxes, also by a few percentage points. In contrast, the policy difference between Egyptian liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood is existential.
President Morsi himself is a study in insensitive African rulership. What does it mean when you win a democratic election? Is it a mandate to pursue whatever agenda you like, or is it merely a mandate to lead the way but to seek the consent and understanding of other citizens every step of the way?  Is election, however free and fair, all that there is to democracy? The liberals not only fought in the streets alongside Brotherhood elements to topple Mubarak but they also voted for Morsi in the second round of Egypt’s presidential elections. Not because they like him, but because his opponent was a former Mubarak minister. Yet, Morsi clearly saw his election victory as a mandate for the Brotherhood’s exclusive agenda.
When does a revolution end? The multitudes that turned out in the streets against Morsi say that what happened last week was not a military coup per se but merely a continuation of the Egyptian revolution against dictatorship. It was Mao Zedong who propounded the dictum of the permanent revolution. This was given practical meaning in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when, for ten years from 1966-76, China was engulfed in absolute chaos. Is that what the Egyptians want to do, permanent revolution?  
Egyptian liberals are only the latest in a long line to learn about the perils of forming broad political coalitions in order to topple autocratic regimes. Iranian liberals who fought alongside the mullahs to topple the Shah got the works soon after Mohamed Reza Pahlavi fled Tehran in 1979. Syrian liberals fighting alongside Islamists to topple Bashar al-Assad are on course for the same treatment. When Egyptians set out to topple Mubarak, did they think for a minute about the African experience with toppling sit-tight dictators such as we saw in Somalia, Zaire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, CAR and in Libya? Let us not mention here the price Iraqis paid and are still paying for the fall of Saddam Hussein, since that one was externally induced.
When Western governments and media organs were encouraging Arab youths to riot in the streets, telling that it was an “Arab Spring,” did anyone remind them that spring is always followed by summer, autumn and winter in short order? Key socio-economic infrastructure built over several generations has been ruined in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Egypt all in the name of Arab Spring. Arab winter is more like it.
What about the African Union [AU] that has this inflexible rule to suspend any country where an elected government is overthrown? Native African wisdom seems to be lacking in that rule. Look at the Americans, who give the Egyptian Army more than a billion dollars in aid every year. Their law says that no aid should be given to an army that stages a coup. Yet, when this coup took place in Egypt, President Obama could only say that he has “asked the relevant agencies to study the matter.” By refusing to describe what happened in Egypt as a coup, Obama also gave those agencies an idea of where to go.
Should we all take Western-style military subordination to civil authority for granted? Not by a stretch, if you ask me. National history and prevailing conditions are the keys in this matter. Some armies have a special role in the affairs of their nations derived from national history. The Egyptian, Algerian, Turkish and Pakistani armies as well as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] are cases in point. The Cuban, Nicaraguan, Angolan and Mozambican armies are totally subordinated to civilian authority even though they were the guerrillas that liberated those countries. The very survival of the State of Israel rests upon the Israeli Defence Forces, yet they allow democracy to flourish there. Only that Israeli military men later make successful careers in politics, e.g. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weismann, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu.
The Egyptian Generals that snatched away three years of Mohamed Morsi’s election mandate, did they spare a thought for what an outraged Muslim Brotherhood could do? They only have to look back to Algeria in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front [FIS] won democratic elections and the Army decided not to allow it to rule. What happened over the next decade in Algeria was absolute mayhem. So what is the main lesson for Nigeria in all these? That democracy is not anyone’s blank cheque.

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