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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

Column: Destroying democracy to save democracy – Egypt’s power struggle

The Egyptian military see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to its power base and have co-opted secularists as a public façade for a naked power grab, writes Colm Ó Broin.

Colm Ó Broin

LIKE EVERY MILITARY regime in history, the recently installed junta in Egypt claims to have the support of the people. The mandate for overthrowing the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government on 3 July rests on the claim of popular approval, but so far there is no verifiable evidence that this claim is true.

The pro-coup Tamarod movement says that 22 million Egyptians signed its petition calling on President Mohamed Morsi to step down while the figures cited for the pivotal 30 June demonstrations have fluctuated wildly from 8 million, 14 million, 20 million to the truly ludicrous 33 million.

There is no way to definitively count the number of people who took to the streets on that day or to prove that the petition numbers are genuine. This is why we have elections, because they are the most accurate way we have to discover the will of the people.

Religious politics has evident support

Unfortunately for the secularists who spearheaded the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, they kept failing at the ballot box following that historic event.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 47 per cent of the seats in elections to Egypt’s lower house of parliament last year, while the even more extreme Nour Party won 25 per cent. They had similar landslide victories in elections to the upper house. This does not suggest a population that wants no role for religion in politics or wider society.

The 2012 Presidential election was a narrower affair. In the second round run-off FJP candidate Mohamed Morsi won with 52 per cent of the vote. A former Mubarak-era Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq received 48 per cent. The Brotherhood also won two referendums, including one which ratified the constitution.

The army has justified the coup by claiming that Morsi’s support among the public had collapsed since his election and that it was merely enforcing the popular will. According to a Pew opinion poll, carried out in March, Morsi had the most favourable rating (53 per cent) of the main party leaders. Two-thirds of the public had a favourable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, again the highest of the main political parties.

In the same poll 58 per cent of respondents said that the country’s laws should “strictly follow the teachings of the Koran” while another 28 per cent said that laws should follow the “values and teachings of the Koran”. This contradicts the narrative that Egyptians are revolting against the Muslim Brotherhood over allegations that it was ‘Islamising’ the country.

Incidentally the new military regime has already stated that Article 2 of the constitution will stay the same as it was under Morsi and Mubarak, an article that states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and that Sharia law is the main source of legislation.

Conflicting results

Two-thirds of respondents to the Pew poll backed the democratic process while 21 per cent said that “in some circumstances a non-democratic form of government can be preferable.” Another poll carried out for the pro-coup Arab American Institute in June showed that a majority of the public (56 per cent) rejected a “temporary military takeover” as a solution to the political crisis with 87 per cent backing “real national dialogue”.

Research done by Egyptian organisations has given conflicting results. A poll by the Islamist-linked Egyptian Centre for Media Studies and Public Opinion claims that 69 per cent of Egyptians oppose Morsi’s ouster while the separate Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion said the same number want the Muslim Brotherhood banned from politics.

Opinion polls in Egypt are notoriously inaccurate so the claims of the army and its supporters could indeed be true, but the only real way to test the public mood is to have free and fair elections. There is a problem for the military however, if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the elections this will show that their putsch and everything they have been doing since 3 July was completely illegitimate.

The coup leaders will obviously be very reluctant to let that happen so reports that they are considering either banning the Brotherhood or restricting the number of seats the FJP can win in the parliament, or even outlawing all parties with a religious platform, are no surprise. It also begs the question as to why such measures would be necessary if the Brotherhood’s support had collapsed.

Any system excluding religious parties that won 70 per cent of the vote at the parliamentary elections last year would be totally undemocratic and would shatter the claims by coup cheerleaders that the removal of Morsi is a “continuation of the revolution”.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the most popular party

The Muslim Brotherhood is undoubtedly a reactionary organisation which has engaged in sectarian hate-mongering and whose supporters have committed violence against the security forces, political opponents and the Christian minority.

It is also the most popular party in Egypt according to election results and little or no evidence has been presented of an imminent attempt by it to abolish the democratic system and install an Islamic theocracy. Justifications of the coup on this basis are therefore very similar to claims that democratic left-wing governments in Latin America had to be overthrown because they were about to create authoritarian communist regimes.

Meanwhile the new military regime is ruling like most military regimes, through repression and terror. They have suspended the democratically endorsed presidency, parliament and constitution. They have closed down critical media outlets and rounded up hundreds of opposition activists. Their media outlets are engaged in their own hate campaign, against the Brotherhood and its voters, while also promoting xenophobia and risible conspiracy theories (demonstrating that secularists can be just as irrational and fanatical as the religious).

Expanding repression

The regime’s forces have killed over a thousand anti-coup protesters, the vast, vast majority of whom were unarmed. The non-Islamists cheered on as the army crushed the democratic rights of the Brotherhood and its supporters, but now, predictably, the regime is expanding its repression beyond the initial targets to secularists who object to its policies.

They face vilification as ‘traitors’ by the pro-junta media, as has happened to Mohamed El Baradei since he stepped down as Vice-President in protest as the Rabaah al-Adawiya massacre. He is now being sued in court for “betraying national trust”. Other secularists who speak out or campaign against the regime will face similar treatment.

The military see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to its power base and have co-opted secularists as a public façade for a naked power grab. Together they are destroying democracy to save democracy.

Colm Ó Broin is a freelance journalist.

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