Tensions Between Democratic Legitimacy, Individual Rights Playing Out In Egypt
August 15, 2013 1:25 p.m.
Farid Abdel-Nour, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at San Diego State University
Avi Spiegel, is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego
Related Story: Egypt Authorizes Police To Use Deadly Force
CAVANAUGH: In response to escalating violence in Egypt, president Barack Obama has canceled scheduled joint military exercises with that country. The president says our traditional cooperation, which in years past has included marine units from Camp Pendleton, cannot continue while civilians are being killed in the streets. Today, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood were urged to form neighborhood watches in Egyptian cities to prevent the brotherhood from burning churches and government buildings. The estimated deaths this weekend are more than 500. Is this a collapse of the promised Arab Spring or the terrible growing pains of a new democracy in Egypt? My guest, Farid Abdel-Nour, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Diego State university, thank you for joining us.
ABDEL-NOUR: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Avi Spiegel is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego. And we're opening the phones to those who have family or friends in Egypt. Please tell us if you've heard from them or comment about concerns about that country. Farid, I think one of the big of the questions that presents itself over this crackdown, and the protests that removed Morsi, if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are so unpopular, how did they win a democratic election in the first place?
ABDEL-NOUR: I think it would be an exaggeration to say they were always unpopular. I think what happened is that immediately after the events of January, 2011, after the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim brothers were the only really well organized group that could possibly win the elections. So they did win the elections. And they won them fair and square, but also because there was no opportunity for any other groups to organize themselves. So they did win. But when Morsi won with 51% of the vote, that was not all his supporters. His opponent was really somebody who was from the old Mubarak regime. So the choice was a very difficult one. A lot of people who voted for Morsi did not subscribe to his ideology. They were voting for what was considered to be the lesser evil.
CAVANAUGH: You were in Egypt last summer. What was the feeling of people then toward the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood?
ABDEL-NOUR: I was right there right before the second round. The presidential election. The mood among members of the revolutionary movement was very dark at the time. They were so depressed to have these choices.
CAVANAUGH: These are the people who we presume had led the uprising against Mubarak; is that right?
ABDEL-NOUR: Yes. These youth groups that were at the forefront of the protests. They were very, very depressed to find themselves being faced with a presidential election where they had to choose between the Muslim brothers or going back to the old Mubarak regime. And that was the result of a very divided vote in the first round of the elections that ended up yielding these two candidates in the second round.
CAVANAUGH: Avi, there have been speculations that America, which has given billions in support for the Egyptian military over the years, that America was silently supporting this crackdown by the Egyptian military. Did the president's statement this morning change that appearance?
SPIEGEL: Not really. The president obviously canceled the joint exercises between the United States and Egypt. But it's the equivalent of canceling brunch. They didn't even talk about canceling the $1.3 billion in aid that the U.S. sends to Egypt. I don't want to belittle it, it's important for the United States and foreign countries to practice exercises together. But this is largely a symbolic gesture, and these kinds of exercises get canceled or rescheduled all the time.
CAVANAUGH: I would imagine it's fair to assume that the U.S. is not happy with what's happening in terms of the dead and the casualties surrounding that crackdown. But why if indeed America has -- would silently support this crackdown, why would America want the Morsi government out of power?
SPIEGEL: There are all sorts of speculations about what the U.S. government wants in Egypt. People in Egypt have thought for a long time that the U.S. government supported the Muslim Brotherhood. For a while, the government supported the Mubarak regime. Now people are saying that the United States supports the military crackdown. So there's a lot of rumor and innuendo. The problem is without a clear U.S. policy, that gives room for this kind of rumor and innuendo. So the United States has been quiet about events in Egypt and Syria etc.
CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the difficulties in creating democracy. Morsi created a new constitution for Egypt which has no real provision for basic human rights. Was that also a grievance that people had against this government?
ABDEL-NOUR: I think that's one of the main grievances. I agree with you that what's going on in Egypt in the last couple of years is really a crucible for gang a better understanding of what it is to speak of democracy anyway. Democracy is not really election, simply. In a sense, if you think what the democratic ideal contain, I would say it contains three main ideas. First a procedure for selecting leaders, elections. Secondly, basic rights and liberties and equality under the law. And thirdly, an element that's often neglected, social justice, an element that has been very much at the forefront of the protests in Egypt, demand for social justice. Now, I think what we can say about the Muslim brothers is that they understood democracy in very narrow terms. They have understood it in terms of electoral procedure. I think we can probably be sure that they are committed to electoral procedures, and that should they have lost election, they would have ceded power. But that's still too narrow an understanding of democracy for other segments of the society who then worry that when the constitution that Morsi pretty much forced -- he expedited, and allowed no discussion, no meaningful level of discussion over it, when that emerged in this manner, it revealed that the brothers were not that committed to other aspects of democratic
SPIEGEL: With all due respect, I absolutely agree. But just because the Muslim brotherhood was stumbling and because Morsi turned out to be a lousy president, are it doesn't mean that only a year into his rule that a military coup is justified. Proponent was democracy, of free and fair elections, would want the presidential term to be carried out. If you don't like a president, you wait three years until the next election and then hold another free and fair election until that president is taken away from office.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me just take this one more step. Our founder, we often forget, saw the necessity, not only of having a democracy where people can vote but of a bill of rights so that the majority could not overpower the rights of the minority. And that, many people would say, is what's needed in Egypt and other emerging democracies. But how does a government go about establishing rights like that?
SPIEGEL: Listen, this is a huge undertaking. And thank you for bringing up the American example T. Reminds us, in this day and age, we like things quickly. My students complain that e-mail is too slow. But these were solutions, only a year or two years old. These things take time! Building institutions, media courts, civil society, these things, political parties, take years if not decades! So we've been looking at this through the lens of weeks and months. Especially in the middle, in cases where authoritarian regimes ruled for decades. Mubarak was in power in Egypt for thirst years. The idea that he's replaced and a year or two later, democracy would suddenly flourish, even though his regime and bureaucracy are still deeply embedded into the Egyptian state, these things take time.
ABDEL-NOUR: I agree. I don't want to say that ousting Morsi was justifiable. But it helps to understand why it was the case that millions of people were very dissatisfied. The rebel movement saw signatures for removing him for office, at least by some accounts, was able to collect something like 22 million signatures. So we cannot deny that there was very signature discontent, and that discontent had a lot to do with an overstepping of the bounds expected by the people who elected him. A lot of the people who voted for Morsi did not support his ideology, his program. They were hoping that he would usher the country into a better age. But then, and here in defense of Morsi, I would say, perhaps because the judiciary stood in his way at every turn, perhaps because the administrative structure of the Egyptian state obstructed any of his policies all the way, perhaps that's why he found himself trying to monopolize power for the Brotherhood. But he did try to monopolize power for the Brotherhood. And that level of discontent cannot be ignored. I don't think that necessarily justifies military intervention.
CAVANAUGH: Let's go back to this present crackdown if we can. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are being arrested across Egypt. Is it your sense the military government is now out to break up this organization?
ABDEL-NOUR: I think the ferocity and the violence with which the dispersion of the citizens have taken place is a reminder of the makeup of the coalition that came to power in this regime. And some of these people are members of the revolutionary groups. They include other main institutions of the Egyptian society, but they also include people leftover from the Mubarak regime. And there are elements within Egyptian society that are so virulently opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood that they would be looking to break them. And what is clear right now is that these elements have made their way into the ministry of interior. And it is from there that they seem to be going about doing that. Is that necessarily the goal of the military? I'm not sure. I don't think that is necessarily the goal of the military to break the Muslim brothers, but there are elements in this coalition for whom I think is this definitely the goal.
CAVANAUGH: Therefore, since the Muslim Brotherhood is now a target of someone who has great power in Egypt right now, could this crackdown lead to a backlash? An insurgency in Egypt?
SPIEGEL: It's possible. I happen to think that the Egyptian militarily is out to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the liberal protestors in Egypt were duped. They thought the military would do just as it did in 2011. It turned on Mubarak and then gave way, ceded power to a civilian government, called for elections, etc. They thought the same thing would happen this time around. But at that point, the military had no choice. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military, the two of them together were the single most units in Egyptian society. Of course now the military is set to try to dispose of their opponent, the other most organized unit in the Egyptian society, and that is the Muslim Brotherhood. Let's not forget that Morsi wasn't just the first Islamist leader of Egypt. He was the first civilian president of Egypt. So the military in Egypt is hugely powerful. It controls 10-30% of the economy, a huge institution, employees hundreds of thousands of Egyptian, hugely respected. And in power since 1952 before Morsi came around.
CAVANAUGH: A lot of people are trying to figure this out. But let me ask you the both of you, what does this instability in Egypt mean to the entire region?
SPIEGEL: I think it could potentially have huge ramifications. Of course it all depends on what's going to happen in Egypt in the coming weeks and months. Will the Egyptian military decide to hold elections and will those elections will free and fair? Some of this remains to be seen. But right now, we know two things. One, I believe this is a huge victory for opponents of democracy, and that is the Al-Qaedas of the world. The Muslim Brotherhood, and many people in the United States don't realize this, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda are dire enemies. And Al-Qaeda thinks that the Muslim Brotherhood are heretics for taking part in elections and trusting democracy. But the Muslim Brotherhood said, listen, we managed to do what you could never do, we deposed authoritarian regimes with peaceful protestors and democracy. Now look at what's happened to democracy. Of the military has crushed it, and Al-Qaeda is around again, this is a huge recruiting boon for them to say the only way to fight military regimes is through violence. So this is not a good thing for democracy. And it's good for authoritarian regimes in the region. They can say, listen, democracy is messy. We're not ready for democracy. You need to stick with us, stand by us. And I'm sure we'll be hearing Assad in Syria saying something similar to that.
ABDEL-NOUR: I think -- I have a slight disagreement on the role of the military here. It might be illuminating a little bit about this democracy thing. I think the Egyptian military today is not the kind of Egyptian military it used to be in the 1950s. It doesn't have this ideological commitment. It's very similar to mainstream ideology that you find, your near liberal run of the mill economic interests. So the military is interested probably right now mainly in safeguarding its main economic interests, and in safeguarding the ability of its recovers to continue to occupy important positions in the state. As to whether it's interested in ruling in perpetuity, I doubt that it is.
CAVANAUGH: We're almost out of time. And I wanted to ask you, there are many San Diegans who have connections to Egypt through family and friends. How dangerous would you say it is there now and how long do you think the situation is going to last?
ABDEL-NOUR: Of course it's impossible for me to tell from this distance. But part of why I think a number of Egyptians in San Diego and throughout the diaspora would be torn is that they are torn between commitments. Many of them are committed to the ideal of democracy, and they are committed to different aspects of it, and they are perhaps able to see both sides better than some people on the ground are able to.
CAVANAUGH: Just a final word on that last segment. We had KPBS reaching out to see how the violence in Egypt, are and the ongoing war in Syria, how they're affecting San Diegans in our community. We're asking you to share your experience with us at KPBS.org/source.