The coup d’état that ousted President Mohammad Morsi on July 3 was a political miscalculation that could throw Egypt into a state of protracted violence and instability. Weekend clashes between supporters and opponents of Mr. Morsi are not the worst that could happen.
The military intervention and crackdown on the organization that Mr. Morsi represents, the
Muslim Brotherhood, may force the group underground. Once out of public life and regarded as renegades, the Brotherhood would be more likely to pursue radical jihadist aims.
The coup sends a message that will “resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: Democracy is not for Muslims,” said a spokesman for Mr. Morsi. Even people who are not Brotherhood supporters may be compelled to admit some day that this was not the best way to deal with an unpopular politician and his party.
Last year’s presidential election gave Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood a taste of power. After decades that included political repression and the imprisonment of its members, the organization finally captured political power in Egypt’s first free presidential election after the Arab Spring overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Once in power, however, the Brotherhood overestimated the support of the Egyptian masses. It became increasingly authoritarian, without a concession to pluralism. The protests that led to Mr. Morsi’s ouster also were the culmination of public outrage and discontent over a deepening economic crisis under the Brotherhood government, marked by rising unemployment and prices and energy shortages.
Hours before his ouster, Mr. Morsi agreed to a “consensus coalition government.” This could have set the stage for a peaceful removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power through the political process. The coup robbed Egypt of that chance. However appealing it may seem at the time, short-circuiting democracy rarely ends well. In
1991, Algeria’s armed forces refused to accept first-round election results that indicated victory for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The result was a devastating civil war that lasted a decade.
Banned by the armed forces, the FIS went underground and began a guerrilla war against the army and its supporters. By the time the war ended in 2002, tens of thousands of innocent people had perished. The violence also spilled beyond Algerian borders, with terrorist attacks in France in 1995. A local conflict thus assumed much wider dimensions.
Egypt’s July 3 coup may ultimately have a similar effect by forcing the Muslim Brotherhood to abandon the electoral process. Democracy requires mastery in the art of moderation.
The political and economic crisis that has engulfed Egypt demands sober, rational calculations and thinking about the future. The coup betrayed that process by cornering the Brotherhood. The military has detained Mr. Morsi and ordered the mass arrest of Muslim Brotherhood members. Yet it is unlikely to disappear as a force. The Brotherhood has survived more than eight decades of repression and the imprisonment of its members. Its supporters already are resisting the ouster of Mr. Morsi, engaging in street battles with the armed forces. As the casualties increase, more people will join what to many is an existential struggle.
Mubarak’s army is experienced and well trained. It may manage to break the resistance of
Brotherhood supporters and stabilize the country in the short run. Crushing the movement in the long run is a much different matter. To avoid further radicalization, Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood should remain a part of the solution to the political crisis in Egypt. Efforts must be made to neutralize, and not radicalize,them. A coalition government is the least costly way out of this crisis.
Mr. Yaghmaian is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His books include “Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights” (State University of New York Press, 2002).