A good coup, as coups go

I don’t know that you can ever really say that a military coup against an elected government is a good thing. But in politics everything is relative, and just occasionally it happens that such a coup is the best of a set of bad options. This week in Egypt might be one of those occasions.

Overnight the Egyptian army seized power, removing and detaining president Mohammed Morsi and appointing in his place the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Adli Mansour, as acting president. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced that the constitution has been “provisionally” suspended and that fresh elections will be held with full public participation.

You can read Al-Jazeera’s translation of the general’s statement here. It sounds very much as if his program, referred to somewhat inauspiciously as the “road map”, was drawn up in concert with the leaders of the opposition. It was subsequently endorsed by senior Muslim and Christian clerics, as well as secular opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei and (according to Al-Jazeera) the Salafist al-Nour party.

All the indications so far are that the coup enjoys broad public approval. Morsi, who in office has often seemed inept rather than deliberately authoritarian, apparently sealed his fate on Tuesday night when he responded dismissively to the demonstrations and to the ultimatum given by the armed forces. Juan Cole said he was surprised by the speech’s “brevity and completely uncompromising character”.

The army evidently drew the conclusion that relations between the government and the demonstrators were going to get worse rather than better, and if it was going to move it was best to do it quickly.

In countries where political conflict gets out of hand and democratic institutions are not strong enough to deal with it, it’s usually the military that gets called in to try to sort things out. Partly, of course, because it has the force available to make its decisions stick, but for more subtle reasons as well: military leaders have reserves of trust and respect that politicians often lack, and armed forces tend to be meritocratic institutions, reflecting broad-based national aspirations more effectively than many more traditional organisations.

Most military professionals, moreover, have a horror of civil war and fear the thought of being asked to fire on their own citizens. It was clear all along in Egypt that the army, which has enjoyed high prestige since at least the days of General Nasser, was unlikely to be on Morsi’s side if things turned nasty.

But it’s hardly necessary to labor the point that military intervention in the political process carries enormous risks, and that generals who get a taste for politics often find it hard to give it up. History is littered with cases of military interventions that seemed justified at first but quickly turned into a worse dictatorship than anything that had gone before.

The critical test now will be the promised elections, and especially whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to freely participate in them. When the Mubarak regime was overthrown, the Brotherhood was the most well-organised opposition movement, so the post-revolution polls – the presidential election won by Morsi (which had other problems as well), plus parliamentary elections that were later annulled and last year’s constitutional referendum – probably overstated its popular support. Certainly the generals will be hoping that’s the case.

Nonetheless, the Brotherhood remains a significant political force, and if the result of yesterday’s coup is to alienate it from democracy then the long-term consequences for Egypt could be very serious. (Look up “Algerian civil war” for some ideas on how serious.)

The generals and the demonstrators both seem to share the goal of a democratic and pluralistic Egypt. A coup is a very risky strategy to get there, but if it works that will justify everything. If it works.

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