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Too much food makes one obese, or at the very least flabby; too much revolution strips the credentials of those who want it, destroys the premises with which it is started, and undermine the cause. We have seen how rebellions cannibalise themselves. Bolshevism moved into bureaucratic stasis and murderous Stalinism; the French Revolution ended up, like Saturn, eating its children by first severing them on the guillotine after attacking the aristocrats. The finest example of this analysis remains Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951), a searing account about how rebellion can turn on itself.
That process is largely one of the utopian dreamer who dons the uniform of combat. The society makers, the dreamers, and the utopians strike in the hope that the next order is a more just one. The prisons are opened. The unjust institutions are either reformed or abolished. But disenchantment follows. As Camus observed, the atrocities that follow by means of terror are committed on the basis of a temporary emergency. You enslave people to free them.
The key to overcome this, suggests Camus, is the careful acknowledgment of transcendental values, be it the liberty of the subject, or the sanctity of life. Be aware of those who deny history, who demand the fresh start in a vacuum of intoxicated enthusiasm.
The narrative of justification behind the deposing of Mohamed Morsi is markedly similar. It was an engineered emergency, and one that argued that the revolution had been hijacked by Islamist enthusiasts and followers of Sharia. The democratic experiment fell into the hands of the “wrong people”. (Oh, the trials and tribulations of a democratic system!)
This view is best expressed by Al Hayat’s senior diplomatic correspondent Raghida Dergham, who thanked Egypt for restoring “to the Arab uprising its insistence on reform and freedom” and repudiating “dictates and despotism, in a spirit of rebellion, pride and perseverance.” Notably, the military are but an instrument for Dergham’s vision of reform, an enlightened body, in fact “the people’s army” (Huffington Post, Jul 5). Generals, it seems, can be enlightened.
Morsi, in the words of Alon Ben-Meir of the Centre for Global Affairs at New York University, “worked tirelessly to consolidate his powers while doing next to nothing to save the economy from pending collapse” (Mindanao Examiner, Jul 9). Freedom of speech was assaulted; a constitution filled with Sharia law was implemented and “Islamic siege mentality and authoritarianism” embraced. For all that, Ben-Meir argues that “political Islam and democracy can work, but not by pushing for early elections.” The time limit? Two years.
In 2004, Reuel Marc Gerecht claimed in The Islamic Paradox that such figures as Hosni Mubarak invariably fed fundamentalism, a process that might create fundamentalist critics. Secular dictatorships were not necessarily better than Islamic ones. Islamist rule was not necessarily incompatible with democratic tenets.
The coup (yes, let’s call it that) also reveals a few foundational ideas. One is that Islam, or to be more precise, Islamic political governance, is incapable of democratic practice. “This is also a good opportunity for those who had wagered on a ‘Turkish model’,” argues Dergham, “to reconsider the application of such a model of religious rule in the Arab region.”
This is a dangerous premise, for it is exactly one that some clerics and fundamentalists would have you believe. The work, in other words, is being done for the radicals by the very people who might oppose them. The Muslim Brotherhood, is other words, is being placed outside the tent rather than being accommodated.
The other dangerous idea is that democracy, by its very nature, can be abridged by military fiat should the need arise. The generals are the perceived guardians who can step in to rescue a sinking ship. A popular vote can be nullified.
One way of undermining a revolution preaching democracy is by despising the very principle of legality, by affirming a mythological supremacy that rejects the law book as it stands. To be legal, we need to undermine it. To be functional, the constitution needs suspension in order to be redrafted. This is the logic that Nazi Germany’s most fluent and controversial jurist believed in: the law of the exception, argued Carl Schmitt, should be embraced, rather than rejected. Emergency decrees might be necessary to protect an order.
The offspring of this suspension, however, can be rather dangerous. In the case of Weimar Germany during the 1930s, democracy delivered a certain Adolf Hitler who stormed in while the democrats went to sleep. That particular “transitional” government lasted till May 1945. It proved a costly one.
Little surprise, then, that such governments as the United States have been tip-toeing around the term “coup”. Whole states in the past have been delegitimised on the basis of the term. The script in Washington since the days of the Wilson administration was that an interruption of constitutional rule demanded severe international chastisement. Military aid would also cease to such a regime. Hence the need to call it something else.
The military, according to Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is “the one stabilising influence in Egypt that I think can temper down the political feuding that you’re seeing going on now, and then help a process that will allow for multiple factions of parties and beliefs to participate.”
Egypt again teeters. The Muslim Brotherhood will be thinking of past failures when the Islamic experiment won, or threatened to win in the polls but was felled by military involvement. Algeria in 1991 is the most potent example. Pro-Morsi supporters have already been slain. Civil war may be in the offing, though what is more likely is a return to the bloody cycle that defies accommodation in favour of despotism. The optimists will be hoping for a third way, one untidily wedged between, to use Ross Douthat’s expression, “the minaret and the tank.” So far, the tank is winning.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org