Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Can democracy be salvaged in Egypt?

  • Print

arak regime to its knees: The military would intervene to take out the president, then move quickly to stage free and open elections. In support of this diagnosis of naivete is the fact that the military didn’t seize power after the coup against Mubarak. Perhaps, then, it was conceivable that the military would act in the public interest once again.

The trouble with this idealistic view is that the army didn’t especially want to hold elections after Mubarak was removed. It was pressured into it by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was — alongside the army — the only other well-organized, disciplined and effective national organization. The army and the Muslim Brotherhood both expected that the Islamists would prevail in elections. The army didn’t much like that, but it feared that if it didn’t allow elections in the wake of the Arab Spring, it would lose public support. It therefore gambled on cutting a deal with the Brotherhood.

Once public protests peaked against Morsi and the Brotherhood, however, the army no longer had to worry that suppressing the only force capable of balancing it would be seen as totally unpopular. To put it bluntly: The liberal protesters in the streets gave the army cover to take out the Brotherhood. The protesters should have seen it coming.

A more cynical view is that the liberals knew the army would suppress the Brotherhood — and wanted it to happen. The Brotherhood could be counted on to like elections as long as it was winning them, but its commitments to liberal rights, as opposed to electoral democracy, were paper-thin. After the drafting of the Islamic-oriented constitution — which was ratified in a national referendum — liberals feared that the Egyptian public was willing to take a chance on the Brotherhood. That result frightened liberals, who by then had lost parliamentary and presidential elections. Knowing they couldn’t win at the ballot box, liberals were happy to let the army take care of their electoral nemesis.

Either way, the question remains: Can democracy be salvaged in Egypt? At some not-very-distant point, the generals will stage an election, if only to satisfy U.S. lawmakers who are embarrassed by the blatant anti-democracy of the coup and think that the Foreign Assistance Act — essentially repudiated by the Obama administration — actually bans continued aid. The Muslim Brotherhood may be formally banned from participating, but in any case, its senior leadership will be either in prison or disqualified from running, or both. Its members may well boycott the election.

Should the liberals run for office, taking advantage of a field cleared of the most popular party in the country? If they do, they’ll have to claim that the coup was all about democracy, and they’ll have to say that it is the Muslim Brotherhood’s own fault that it won’t or can’t run.

If the liberals participate and elect some candidates — even a president — they will soon see that the army has no interest in relinquishing meaningful power to them. So long as the Brotherhood still exists — and it has endured repression for almost a century — the liberals’ position in power will be completely dependent upon the military’s good offices in excluding the Brotherhood.

In exchange, the military will expect obedience from the elected civilian leadership on the issues it cares about: not just defense and foreign policy, but also domestic policy insofar as it involves preserving the prerogatives of the army and its self-controlled business empire. Oh, and free speech, which will have to be controlled to keep the Islamists from denouncing the government as illegitimate. And free assembly, which will have to be prohibited so the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t organize more protests. Freedom of religion? Forget about it.

The upshot will be that the liberal rights sought by the protesters won’t exist — not just for the Brotherhood but also for them. Their principles gone, they will be tarred by the brush of collaboration. And eventually, the Islamists will be back. The next time, though, it won’t be by the ballot.


Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of Cool War: The Future of Global Competition, is a Bloomberg View columnist.


—Bloomberg News

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets this week - Game 2 with Tim and Gary

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Goose sits in high grass near Marion Friday afternoon for cover -See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 18 - May 25, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Someone or thing is taking advantage of the inactivity at Kapyong Barracks,hundreds of Canada Geese-See Joe Bryksa’s goose a day for 30 days challenge- Day 15- May 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google