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Tale of Two Coups

DEFINITION: Coup: (also coup d'état ) a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government: he was overthrown in an army coup.

The media is abuzz with events in Cairo. Feelings are decidedly mixed about the ouster of Muhammad Mursi, President of Egypt, after one year in office by the military. Many speak about the removal of Egypt’s ‘first democratically elected president.’ What can or should we make of this development?

First, all of this has to be seen in the context of the ‘Arab Spring,’ which is the series of grassroots, youth-driven, internet-fueled revolutions across the Arab world. Long-term autocrats have been swept out of power and democratic elections have replaced them. There is more, however. Until now, only four governments have changed hands in the 22 nation strong Arab world and all of them have been autocrats in secular republics. Monarchies have, thus far, remained intact. Whether true and full democracy emerges in the Arab world due to the Arab Spring remains to be seen; one thing is for sure, however, and that is the Middle East is in transition and transition brings instability. This is what we are seeing now in Egypt, Libya, and possibly Tunisia.

While it is correct to say that Mr. Mursi was ‘democratically elected,’ he barely squeaked through with 51 or 52% of the vote, facilitated by a divided opposition. Once in office, much of what he did was anything but democratic. He sacked the generals, muzzled the press, punished those who criticized him, railroaded constitutional change, and gave himself extraordinary powers that took away the accountability that ‘checks and balances’ give. Minorities like the Copts and other Christians, women, and secularists, were clearly sidelined. Consensus and compromise were nowhere to be found. It is not enough to be ‘democratically-elected,’ (Hitler was, by the way, in 1933) -- you have to live according to the rules of democracy after you assume power.

Even if Mursi had won the 2012 election by a landslide, which he did not, he would have been most unwise to bring too much change too soon. Considering that the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Mursi came from, had planned for political power for many years, it is amazing that their handling of that power, once achieved, was extraordinarily amateurish.

We need to remember that there is more to democracy that mere elections. Any country can hold an election; there were elections even in the days of Saddam in Iraq or Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt. Usually, there was only one name on the ballot -- the incumbent - and they always got 99% of the vote. True democracy is measured by those things that happen in-between free multi-party elections. The ingredients include: a free press, an independent judiciary, ‘checks and balances,’ balance of power so that no one branch of government has too much authority, a respect for human rights, and protection for minorities. Without these things in operation, there cannot be a true democracy.

By all accounts, Egypt is still a ‘democracy-challenged’ nation. The actions of Mursi did nothing to further the cause of freedom. We democracy-loving westerners cannot be happy about military or political coups; in the case of Egypt, however, due to the shift away from democracy, the perceived power grabs, and increasing instability, it could be that the military may have prevented a civil war. Let’s hope that we never find out. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they will protest for the time being, but are expected to blend back into the political mainstream. They will live to ‘fight again’ at the ballot box but may steer clear of the presidency for the time being.

A week earlier, there was another ‘coup’ in a country that is among the most democratic in the world. Australia saw its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, ejected from office when Kevin Rudd successfully challenged her for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). This was the third attempt to replace her, and it occurred 3 years after she successfully took the leadership from Rudd. What we have seen, in essence, is prime ministerial ‘musical chairs’ between two ambitious individuals.

While it would be extreme to say the events in Egypt and Australia are identical: after all, Australia did not have military intervention, there were no mass demonstrations, no lives were lost and so on. However, could we honestly say that the ascendancy of Kevin Rudd to the prime minister’s position is consistent with democracy? Was it a ‘democratic transition? The answer is ‘No.’ In 2007, the nation voted for Rudd and got Gillard. In 2010, Julia won government and now we have Rudd. It seems that the most democratic thing is that the person who holds office is the one who should be accountable to the voters at the next election. Could it be that the events in Egypt, including petitions with millions of signatures and mass protests in major cities, have been more democratic than the ALP party room machinations, motivated by opinion polls, in Canberra?

Of course, we know why the ALP voted to reject Julia, including some of her ‘sister’ female parliamentarians: they wanted to avoid a total electoral wipe-out. Since the policies of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were almost identical, it seems that a rout is still possible, unless Mr Rudd can sell a new image and the Australian electorate buys it.


This blogger has lived in Australia since 1987 and seen five individuals hold the office of prime minister: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard.  Sadly, not one of them retired from office victoriously. Keating lost at the ballot box; Howard lost at the ballot box and even lost his parliamentary seat which he had  held for 33 years. The other three: Hawke, Rudd, and Gillard, were deposed in the party room. All three of them were from the ALP. It seems that for such a sound and robust democracy like Australia, there is something decidedly undemocratic about its prime ministerial transitions ... especially with the Australian Labor Party. At least the Liberal Party in 2007, though facing dismal poll numbers, stuck with its prime minister until election day. It is time that the ALP do the same. Democracy demands it.

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