Checks and Balances and Coups

The Egyptian army today gave President Muhammed Morsi and the rival political factions 48 hours to resolve the political crisis that has plunged the powerful Middle Eastern nation into chaos. If they do not, the generals say, those political factions will be provided with a “road map” to “heed the will of the people.” The underlying threat — the return of direct military rule of Egypt — is unmistakable.

Reversing democratic elections by force is always disturbing. Military coups have an overwhelmingly dismal track record throughout history at furthering democratic norms and human rights. The instability that coups inherently bring often leads instead to further economic turmoil and political repression, despite whatever coup leaders promise to the contrary. Look to Mali, where a military coup in 2011 triggered a chain of events that led to Islamist-aligned forces conquering northern Mali and then a French-led military intervention to restore order. (Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to his credit, recently apologized to the Malian people for what his actions had wrought.)

But is this one justified? Civilian control of the military is a defining feature — some might say the defining feature — of any liberal democracy. But it’s not the only one. Public anger over economic stagnation and government repression fueled this crisis, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempted purge of Egypt’s often-defiant judiciary earlier this year helped precipitate the current mass demonstrations. Morsi and his allies gained control of the presidency and the legislature through fair and free elections, and they now seek to reshape the judiciary in their own image through new laws. Would Morsi’s unchecked majoritarianism not also be fatal to hopes of a pluralistic, competitive Egyptian political process? Should the Muslim Brotherhood write the laws, enforce the laws, and now interpret the laws because it won a single election? Can that be truly considered democracy? Without institutional checks and balances, is there a role for the Egyptian army to serve as a check on government power when the Egyptian public so vividly demands it?

If there were easy answers to Egypt’s problems, they would have already found them. I don’t know what’s coming next for Egypt; anyone who claims to know is lying. What happens in the next few weeks will shape the Egyptian political system for decades and perhaps generations to come. Will it be for better or for worse? I defer to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the late 1960s about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. Cryptically, Zhou replied, “It is too soon to say.”