Egypt's coup and the persistence of political Islam
President Mohammed Morsi (variously spelled in the Roman alphabet) and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown by the military just one year after winning Egypt's first real election in living memory. The coup followed escalating mass protests against the Islamist regime's growing authoritarianism, its refusal to share power with other political forces, and its failure to solve Egypt's intractable problems (in fact, the problems have gotten much worse). Any military coup is inherently undemocratic, but this one can at least be viewed as a dramatic expression of buyer's remorse. Crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated the news. In a somewhat reassuring move, the military chose the chief judge of the constitutional court, not a general, as interim President.
Why did Islamists win the election in the first place? There are two reasons, both of which exemplify more widespread problems in the Islamic world.
(1) The Islamists are unified and have had time to get well-organized. Muslim dictators, like dictators anywhere, tend to murder or lock up their opponents, but are often afraid to crack down equally hard on Islamists, who are numerous and potentially violent. Thus, by the time a dictatorship falls, Islamists are often the only big political force left on the scene, while secular forces must scramble to catch up in organizing themselves. Thus Islamists, if they move quickly, are often able to take power after a dictator falls, the most striking example being Iran after the fall of the Shah. In Egypt, the decades-old Muslim Brotherhood was unified and organized while many small parties split the secular vote.
(2) Islamists have more genuine mass support than Westerners realize. Muslim societies are traditionally highly religious, and most of them remain poor, less-educated, and generally backward compared with, say, Latin America or Southeast Asia. The most modernized populations live in the large cities and participate in the demonstrations we see on TV, but rural areas remain more traditional, less literate, more devout, and more supportive of religious rule. (This pattern is not limited to Islamic countries, as urban-vs-rural voting patterns in the US will attest -- somebody out there is voting for the Santorums and Bachmanns and Gohmerts.) The voters who elected Erdogan in Turkey (now also a target of urban protest), and the Basij militia whom Iran's Ayatollahs used to suppress pro-democracy protests in 2009, came from this "redneck" element of the populations of those countries. In Egypt, protesters celebrating the coup have looted and burned Muslim Brotherhood offices -- but there have also been counter-protests supporting Morsi.
Westerners recoil from the thought of military rule, which in any advanced nation would be a huge backward step. In the Islamic world, however, the military is often one of the most modern-thinking and secular parts of society. Military officers, to do their jobs at all competently, must have some grasp of technology, engineering, and the way things work in the real world. That requires education and a willingness to absorb ideas outside the religious bubble.
This is why democracy -- and more importantly freedom and secularism -- face a difficult path in the Islamic world. If overthrowing a dictator almost always leads to Islamist rule (Syria looks like the latest country following this pattern), how can liberal secular forces ever get the chance to unify and organize? If secular government depends on periodic applications of military rule to "correct" the actions of elected Islamists (as has sometimes been the case in Turkey), can it attain real democratic legitimacy?
It has been suggested that the only way to discredit the Islamists is to let them take power for a while and be seen to fail. This has probably happened in Iran, where it's hard to imagine Islamists winning a genuinely free election. Yet the lesson comes at the price of terrible suffering and stagnation, and as we saw in 2009, the discredited regime can be very hard to get rid of.
And in Egypt's case, the problems would be daunting for any government. With 85 million people crammed into a habitable area (Nile valley and delta) barely larger than Maryland, deep poverty (the income per person is about one-third that of Mexico), widespread illiteracy, and dangerous levels of pollution and chronic disease, the Arab world's most populous state needs the best leadership it can get. Instead, it will likely see a period of renewed conflict between secularists supporting the coup and the devout who remain loyal to Morsi. Escalated Islamist violence against the Christian minority (officially 10% of the population but probably much larger in fact) remains another possibility.
On this Independence Day, be grateful for the First Amendment which keeps religion out of our own government, however imperfectly -- and be vigilant against those who would weaken it.