The coup in the early evening hours on Wednesday was not entirely unexpected. What was somewhat surprising was the speed and relatively peaceful usurpation of power by the military as it ejected Mohamed Morsi, president of Egypt for one year almost to the day (June 30, 2012 – July 03, 2013), from office. The Ikhwan al-Muslimun – Muslim Brotherhood – which had gone from being persecuted since their inception in 1928 to being democratically elected to office upon the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime, was back out on the streets again.

There is much debate about whether what happened in Egypt was a coup or not. Lexicographically speaking, power did change hands abruptly from the institutional seat of power to another group within the country. However, the widespread support the coup has seen from opposition parties as well as large sections of the public raises the thorny question of whether the event was not merely the continuation of Egypt’s revolution from last year, or a new one.

This seemingly trivial dispute over semantics has serious consequences. Immediately, a coup would trigger a series of legal procedures that would halt aid from the United States, which could snowball to include Europe and other countries. Politically, any new government would find the negative connotations of a coup a millstone around its neck and would be hamstrung out of the gates.

The answer to this semantic quandary must be found in the spirit of the law, not the letter of it. In many ways, the Egyptian situation is reminiscent of the landmark US federal court case, Ex parte Merryman. During the American Civil War, US President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in response to pro-Confederate raids on Union lines and ordered his military units to detain attackers. John Merryman, one such detainee, appealed to US Chief Justice Robert Taney, who immediately issued a writ of habeas corpus.

Lincoln disregarded the ruling, and in a famous speech in defence of his position, asked a special session of Congress, “are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?” Lincoln’s argument was that not only did Article I, Section IX, Clause II of the US constitution give him the right to suspend habeas corpus, but if it did not, allowing a breakdown of domestic order due to a legal technicality would violate his oath of office which commanded him to preserve the order of government. Should the law be followed to the letter despite the severe negative consequences of doing so?

Seen in this light, Ex parte Merryman (and similar subsequent cases such as KempVallandinghamMilliganSchenck, and the more shameful HirabayashiKorematsu, and Endo) all reflect the tendency to suspend civil liberties in a time of grave crisis threatening domestic order. The degree to which liberties are suspended is directly proportional to the danger of the threat posed.

The Egyptian scenario certainly did not play out in a court, and unlike the above examples, the action was directed against the Executive itself. Nonetheless, it forces us to examine our priorities and consider what democracy actually means. Despite all the hand-wringing about the early death of democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was not interested in democracy but power. Morsi’s regime steadily increased the restrictions on faith, and then suddenly made the president immune to judicial review while he appointed the prosecutor-general in violation of the fundamental democratic principle of separation of powers; the Supreme Constitutional Court was also downsized. The acrimony over the constitutiondrafting process is still fresh in everyone’s minds, particularly the controversial articles regarding freedom of expression, women’s rights, and freedom of faith. The Brotherhood’s passing the constitution despite the opposition walkout did not bode well for Egypt’s nascent democracy either; as many observers pointed out, a referendum without proper public debate was a farce in a country that had state-controlled media and 28% of the people were illiterate. The constitution, which any new nation should unite around, became one of the most divisive experiences of the Egyptian Spring.

Morsi’s regime did not stop at that – it effected stringent control over the media and public figures began to be arrested for blasphemy and lèse-majesté, and women anchors were advised to follow certain dress codes. Morsi also used the Brotherhood-dominated upper house of parliament actively to legislate several other controversial laws, not the least of which envisioned a complete revamp of the judiciary and judges. By the time Morsi was ousted, everyone except the more radical Islamist parties were arrayed against him.

Despite these clear indications of authoritarian tendencies, many mourn the demotion of democracy in Egypt. The removal of Morsi from power will make it even more difficult to convince Islamists in Libya and elsewhere to lay down their arms, and the Brotherhood and its allies might have been pushed to reconsider the benefits of a democratic process. Members of the Brotherhood had, by June 30, pre-emptively blamed the United States for the potential coup and were drawing parallels to elections in Algerian in 1992 when the Army annulled the results because the Brotherhood won.

To accept this discourse of victimhood is folly, for it lays blame squarely on Cairo for any future acts of aggression by the Brotherhood. It disregards the state of the organisation in Syria, where they have been forced to turn to arms, and the United Arab Emirates, which just imprisoned 69 members of a Brotherhood-linked group for fomenting revolution.

As all but the very naive expected, the Army moved pre-emptively against the Muslim Brotherhood as soon as Morsi was deposed. Most prominent members of the group have been placed under house arrest, and Morsi himself held at the Republican Guard Club. Simultaneously, angry crowds stormed the Brotherhood’s offices in Moqattam. In retaliation, supporters of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun have struck back, the resultant death toll crossing 17 so far.

The Army’s coup has not prevented violence, and given the large base the Ikhwan still commands, the situation can get worse before it gets any better. However, nothing indicates that the Brotherhood remaining in power would have been better; besides the stunted institutions of an allegedly democratic state Morsi and his team were creating, domestic order had also become a thing of the past. It is not uncommon to impose temporary martial law in the face of such breakdown of law and order; the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1992 is one such instance. yet what if the offending party is the allegedly democratic government itself?

As Michael Koplow, Program Director of the Israel Institute, has astutely observed, many in the West (or more generally, residents of democratic countries) tend to have a fetish for elections and consider them synonymous with democracy. Elections are argued to confer infinite legitimacy by politicians as they push their illiberal majoritarian agenda through. In recent days, we have seen this not only in Egypt but also in Turkey and, more quietly, India.

The fact is, however, Morsi has not once shown himself to be anything more than the president of the Muslim Brotherhood – his sectarian policies have created deeper rifts in Egyptian society and he has put party above country. His fall does no damage to democracy in the land of the Nile. The collapse of the Weimar Republic remains an excellent warning on the limitations of democracy – even a popularly elected group cannot be allowed to violate the foundational principles of the system while we expect it to remain the same.

If Egypt does not want a democracy, that is its choice. Yet to pretend that the Morsi interlude was democratic is delusional. Admittedly, the coup is no blessing in that it returns everything back to square one for the Egyptians; they will have to recreate a government which will have to rewrite the constitution. Most difficultly, any new government will have to consider the Brotherhood’s wishes; even with a whittled supporter base, they are large enough to cause severe problems if kept outside the political process. Furthermore, there is no denying that Egypt is an Islamic country and though a majority of its citizens do not wish to see it have a prominent role in government, it informs their thinking, actions, and preferences.

All this will have to be done under constant attack from the Ikhwan who will no doubt try to disrupt the process and make their sojourn seem successful by comparison. On the whole, however, this episode may be a better lesson to Egyptians on the deeper meaning of democracy.

No doubt, everyone desires that Egypt start on its process of building stable and democratic institutions as soon as possible and this coup was a disappointment. People are weary of the Egyptian Spring, and the tumultuous year under Morsi has taken its own toll. Nonetheless, this course correction in Egyptian democracy was needed. Any democratic government must manifest the values of its people; the Morsi regime came to power based on false election promises and cannot claim to do so. One can only hope that the Army and the opposition groups will return the country to civilian rule soon, but it would be unwise to punish the Egyptians for this setback by withholding vital aid.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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