The Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood government following massive protests against increasing Islamic rule, deteriorating economic conditions, and the near collapse of major institutions, which have become completely dysfunctional. The administration once again was tone deaf when it came to facts on the ground. Thanks in part to an airhead ambassador, it has managed to wind up on the wrong side of events, a fact that was not lost on the crowds, which singled out the President and ambassador for scorn on their placards. For despite the distress of a number of western leaders, this was not a banana republic coup d’état, but part of an extra-constitutional tradition relatively widespread in the Islamic world, from Turkey to Pakistan. It is essentially based upon the premise that when civilians screw up the government the military has to intervene.
It is important to understand the context and prevailing conditions. It would be nice if western leaders stopped mouthing platitudes about democratic government and instead recognized the dynamics in play. In any modern constitutional state there is more than majority rule; constitutional protections are also included, i.e. for minority rights. One such minority consists of Christians in the Middle East, who face continuing persecution in many countries while western officials remain silent, to their everlasting shame. Religious minorities are far more likely to be protected in a secular state than under a government that is religiously oriented. Thus Muslim minorities, for example, are not persecuted anywhere in the west.
In the Islamic world it is the military that has served as the guarantors of the secular state. This model began in Turkey, which is usually cited as representative of a successful modern Islamic country. This in large measure is due to Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey, who, in a remarkable departure, began what essentially was a process of de-Islamification of the state in favor of a secular, western-style government. The guarantors of that tradition were the military, which would periodically intervene whenever civilian government rule came near collapse, at least until the present government in Turkey, which has instituted a major purge of senior military officers. They can no longer intervene even as the government becomes increasingly autocratic, resulting in the recent mass protests throughout the country. But at least the Turkish government had the good sense to backtrack and make some effort to accommodate the protestors. In Egypt the military did intervene in order to protect the secular, constitutional state, apparently with considerable popular support and no intention of wielding political power on a long-term basis.
Why is it that the military is the bulwark of a secular, modern state in these societies? The answer lies in the nature of the order that must prevail in a large scale, formal organization if it is to function effectively. That order must be rationally based, regardless of dogma. A military has to be organized to achieve its objectives based on information and facts, and to have the capacity to master sophisticated modern weapons, communications, and command systems. In addition, functions must be assigned rationally otherwise nothing works. In a backward society the military is often the only viable institution with these characteristics, and much of the Islamic world is relatively backward. That is the reason this does not apply or occur in advanced countries, where we would not want the military to act in this capacity. The underlying population structure is different when most of the citizens are middle class, prosperous, and educated and there is a vast array of rationalized institutions. The more these characteristics appear, the more a society moves towards stable constitutional government.
Large segments of the people demonstrating in Egypt are young, educated, and middle class. They were chafing under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. But if people object so strongly to religious governments, how or why do they elect them? When there is a large, backward peasantry they tend to gravitate towards religious parties, evident in both Egypt and Turkey. The reason for this is that people anywhere tend to opt for traditional rectitude when given a choice, and therefore those claiming to represent it. Thus, when people vote for Islamist parties they are choosing what they perceive as championing the moral basis of their societies. They only become disenchanted after the religious parties, once in power, make a mess of things because of the prism through which they view the world. When rational organization becomes subservient to values, be they religious or ideological, nothing works. Basic services can’t be provided, normal business can’t be conducted, the economy tanks, and government is perceived as completely incompetent.
These are realities that have to be taken into consideration when crafting foreign policy. The situation on the ground is usually more complex than presumed and things get bungled as a result. It’s time we realize that if the preconditions of constitutional democracy aren’t there, it isn’t going to materialize. That also means we can’t impose it from above or outside if the population does not have the characteristics necessary to sustain it. The truth is that most people in these countries are more interested in a better life. Only when they have some semblance of that will they begin to strive for democratic government.