There are lots of important questions to ask about the military coup in Egypt and what comes next. Both Nathan Brown and Jeremy Pressman raise important points about the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible options in the aftermath, while Marc Lynch considers the American reaction.
But what we shouldn’t do is condemn the coup out of misplaced expectations and pique. I don’t, of course, mean that military takeovers are an appropriate means of politics and should be encouraged as regular practice. Rather, there is a tendency, it seems to me, to look at Egypt as though the election that brought the Muslim Brotherhood (a) existed in a vacuum, and (b) is the only instance of an autocracy-to-democracy transition gone awry.
On the first point, there was in Egypt a convergence of a myriad of problems that conditioned the likelihood of success of first elections. A short list would include: an unstable transition from autocracy to democracy; deeply divided population; immature party system; a Muslim Brotherhood government that believed its moment had arrived and that was intolerant toward the opposition; a military used to its autonomy; and an American government unsure how to respond except to avoid severing the relationship.
But more than that, though, is the fact that a wide range of opposition groups, the Coptic community, and religious authorities actively supported the coup. This tells us that however legitimate the 2011-2012 elections that brought the Brotherhood to power were, its governing was not—certainly, as Michael Koplow has noted, not enough to justify the controversial decisions that they, under President Mohamed Morsi, took.
To assume under these conditions that Egyptian democracy was not fragile would be to ignore the interests and feelings of those groups both in power and out of it. The political system was not strong enough to handle either the over-accumulation of power or the widespread dissatisfaction with it.
This leads to the second point, which is that a comparison of Egypt to other transitions can tell us much about the potential success of the revolution. Historical patterns suggest that violence is the norm, that much time is needed before the transition is finished, and that a successful outcome (defined as the establishment of a real democracy) is never guaranteed.
Sheri Berman has a very good piece in Foreign Affairs comparing the Arab Awakening to transitions in France, Italy, and Germany. Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans (hat tip to Pressman) have a paper that uses quantitative analysis to determine the consequences of military coups (their conclusion is that coups are not as harmful to the establishment of democracies as we might think). Finally, commenters on Pressman’s piece in the Monkey Cage provide several more interesting comparisons.
Our energies are better focused, then, on understanding why the military coup occurred in Egypt so that another similar development can be avoided and the transition away from authoritarianism is smoothed. Understanding the particularities of Egypt’s transition should be complemented with a mining of lessons learned from other cases of transition.
A first glance indicates that while military intervention isn’t necessarily a good thing, it’s not unexpected; and it doesn’t mean the transition is knocked off course. This would be a good starting point for analysis and work.