The Egyptian army has come forth to save democracy by destroying it. A man in uniform, Abdelfatah al-Seesi, gave himself the right to oust and hold in detention an elected president. Say what you will about the Free Officers who toppled the monarchy in 1952, they had been men of their time. They had known political protest, and they had known war.
Gamal Abdel Nasser had imbibed the political currents of his time. He had fought and fought well in the war for Palestine. He had carried within him the grievance of a military that had been dispatched into a war it wasn’t prepared to fight.
As for Anwar Sadat, he had known the life of the street. He had taken part in the assassination of an ancien regime politician known for his sympathy for the British occupation; he had been cashiered from the army, knew adversity and had been imprisoned. All of the hopes -- and frustrations of Egypt -- were to be found in the men who went out on July 23, 1952, to upend the monarchy.
Abdelfatah al-Seesi is a product of a different army and a different world. He is a man of the barracks, and the commissaries and business interests, of the officer corps. He graduated from the military academy in 1977; he would rise in the armed forces in a time of peace. He has known no combat; he served as a military attache in Saudi Arabia, and attended the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
There is nothing remarkable about al-Seesi; he is said to be religiously devout. It was President Mohamed Mursi himself who chose him as commander of the armed forces, promoting him over 200 more senior officers. This is no Mustafa Kemal Ataturk emerging out of war and national distress.
A craven civilian leadership that had been unable to trump the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballot box was glad for the gift of his coup. It is a “hiccup,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the darling of liberals abroad, of the coup. ElBaradei had a front-row seat, as the new military master issued the declaration that ousted Mursi. And the needed religious cover was at hand: the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope. Tribute had to be paid to the street -- or more precisely to Tahrir Square -- and representatives of the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement who had gathered the petitions that called for an end to the Mursi presidency were present, too.
In truth, there was no urgency to the coup. Mursi wasn’t about to run away with the republic. The man reigned but didn’t rule. The police were a law unto themselves, the judiciary was defiant, and the army was untouchable.
The issues of war and peace -- the accommodation with Israel, the traffic with the U.S. -- were beyond Mursi’s writ. The intelligence services were supreme in their own domains. The deep state that Hosni Mubarak had bequeathed was intact.
True, Mursi had secured the passage of a constitution last December, and 64 percent of the voters had given their approval. But countries don’t live by constitutions, and the ratified constitution was in the main an anodyne document with the boilerplate provisions of prior declarations. This land had never been governed by constitutional provisions. Successive regimes have lived and functioned outside the law, and the pharaonic leadership at the helm needed no validating constitutional mechanisms.
The true powers in the land could have permitted Mursi the full run of his four-year mandate. The country could have dealt with it. But the land was set on the boil, and the coup was the easy way out.
Egypt has been perennially prone to violent shifts of opinion and preferences. It makes political deities and breaks them: Its broad middle class has been brittle and given to superstition and conspiracy theories. Modernism has been on the defensive for decades now, and the country has been bereft of the saving graces of participatory politics.
After tyranny came an infatuation with the maximalism of rebellion. Moderation quit the land. An unknown military officer was now the redeemer. The national maladies will endure. There is no way the roots of the Muslim Brotherhood could be extirpated.
But the secularists now wanted the old, burdened country to be theirs and theirs alone. The newly formed cabinet is composed of ministers of a decidedly secular bent. Some retreads from the Mubarak era have found their way into the new government.
Augusto Pinochet was a cruel and wicked man, the aftermath of his coup against Salvador Allende a time of merciless official terror. But grant Pinochet his due: He assumed the responsibility of his power and he remade the economy. By the early signs, General al-Seesi intends to rule behind the facade of civilian power. He can be forgiven the sense that the crowd -- all those good secularists and self-styled liberals -- had pined for his rule.
(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.”)
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