BY Jim Harding

It’s difficult following events in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. The largest country in the Arab world, Egypt, is quickly dividing over the military’s removal of the elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. There have been causalities on both sides from recent violence. Both the pro and anti-Morsi forces claim they are upholding “democracy”. Hopefully the simplistic “good guy-bad guy” views that Western powers have superimposed on regional events after 9/11 are starting to crumble as homegrown struggles for democracy unfold.

But the conflict remains puzzling. Syria’s Assad regime, which the West is now arming rebels to overthrow, came out in support of the military’s removal of Morsi. So did Saudia Arabia, hardly a bastion of democratic rule. Meanwhile, what sympathizers refuse to call a “coup” has been condemned as such by Tunisia and Turkey, where moderate Islamist governments exist. Yet the estimated 33 million who went out on the streets calling for Morsi’s removal are associated with more liberal, secular and moderate Islamic political forces in Egypt.


The Muslim Brotherhood claims legitimacy to govern because their candidate received the support of 13 million Egyptians. The many more millions who demonstrated against the Morsi regime see their legitimacy coming from the sovereignty of the people, much like during the French and American revolutions. Both arguments can justify the use of power. Our own Harper government claims its legitimacy from getting a majority of parliamentary seats from the support of a minority of Canadians.

The Egyptian contradictions run deep. Many of the same people who helped bring down the 30-year military rule of Hosni Mubarak cheered on as the military removed Egypt’s first elected president. Some of the same people who stood shoulder to shoulder to depose Mubarak are now at fierce logger heads.

Social revolutions can morph in unpredictable ways. The question of what constitutes “democratic legitimacy” is now being hotly contested. Does it matter that Morsi’s Islamist constitution wasn’t inclusive; that women’s rights were downplayed? That the Morsi government seemed insensitive about anti-Shia and anti-Christian sectarianism? Can the legitimacy derived from elections be used to justify undemocratic trends?


Electoral victory may be necessary, but it is risky to see this as being sufficient for legitimacy. Hitler’s rise to power is still instructive. Though he was appointed, not elected, as Chancellor in 1933, he was able to dissolve parliament and maneuver the Nazi Party into getting the largest vote. Without majority support he successful fragmented the opposition and after the Cabinet made him Fuhrer he was able to get popular support in a plebiscite. And look what he brought to Europe after “democratically” manipulating his control over the state and military. Might it have been better for everyone if the German military had successfully ousted him from power before things escalated into his vicious one-party militaristic regime?

Is there any analogy with Egypt today? Formed in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been underground for most of its history. It endured repression, jail and even torture, including under Mubarak when he was receiving U.S. military aid. The U.S. is now hesitant to call Morsi’s ousting a “coup” because it would have to cut aid to the military and risk Egypt going further into disarray. And Egypt has been one of the few Arab countries to broker a peace treaty with Israel. Yet the ousting of an Islamist president may drive more Islamists towards anti-democratic and even terrorist tactics.


Political Islam grew out of colonial victimization. Mosques became a place where people felt safe and Islam played a role in overcoming the deep shame inbred from occupation. This, however encouraged an Islamic version of “social conservatism”, and like all mixings of religion and politics it carries its own risk of intolerance.

Political Islam remains a force in the Middle East and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has greatly influenced this. After decades of repression, in 1981 a break-off group calling for a jihad assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Egypt went into three decades of repressive Mubarak rule that wasn’t overthrown until the Arab Spring.
In 1991, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was leading in the first round of Algerian elections, it was banned from continuing to run for office. Canada supported this action. In the aftermath 100,000 people died in the Algeria civil war.

Hamas formed as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 1987 uprising of Palestinian youth, the Intifada. After being elected in the Gaza Strip in 2006, several Western countries including Canada refused to deal with Hamas as the legitimate government. Harper’s government still considers them a “terrorist” group.

For years Turkey’s judiciary struck down attempts by moderate Islamic parties to be within government; only in 2002 was the AK Party allowed to form government. Turkey now has a social conservative Islamist President but he, too, is increasingly being challenged from the street.


State control can be used for many purposes – to centralize power  and weaken opposition, to serve religious and/or economic interests, including corporate interests. It could be used to protect the biosphere, human rights and enhance human wellbeing. A government that wins a majority of seats with a minority of votes can claim formal legitimacy to rule, if necessary with an iron fist. Once this process is deconstructed, it looks more like the “tyranny of the minority”.

Was this happening in Egypt? There were fears the Islamist constitution wouldn’t protect women’s or minority religious rights or build a strong democracy. Morsi quickly lost political legitimacy because he didn’t improve economic conditions for the broad masses of people, including the rising strata of displaced youth, the precariat, who are fueling this revolution. According to the military, prior to Morsi’s removal he was in denial about the extent of the popular uprising and once Muslim Brotherhood officials called for defending Morsi’s power with street violence, the military had to step in to avert a civil war.

Some fear this is a justification for a return of military rule; we’ll soon see. Now that some Morsi supporters have died at the hands of the military which says it had to quell armed attacks, the situation could spiral out of control. But there’s no denying that many more people “voted” against Morsi’s rule by coming out onto the streets than voted for him during the presidential election. Should they have waited to defeat him in the next election? Or was there already a threat to Egypt’s nascent democracy from authoritarian rule? Did democratic ends justify military means?

Even if recent events can be justified as a “democratic coup”, the pattern of elected Islamic parties being overthrown carries great risks for the region. If these Islamic governments are being overturned because they are undemocratic, then why are most authoritarian Arab states supporting their overthrow? Figure that.


Popular history may resolve these deep contradictions. Hopefully Egypt’s revolution can carry on and achieve a stable, inclusive, participatory democracy. This requires overcoming the sectarian politics between the Sunni and Shia.

Perhaps we need to also wake up here and address our own contradictions. We hope our institutions can withstand Harper’s assault on our democracy – his breach of the rule of law, his undercutting parliamentary supremacy, his manipulation of due process from the PMO, his Omnibus bills, etc. But isn’t it time for the 70% who do not support Harper to begin to have a say in what’s happening to our country. Rather than passively waiting for the 2015 election to see if Harper can again maneuver power with minority support, we could perhaps use a little more of the non-violent spirit of the Arab Spring right here at home.

I will return in mid-August; have a good summer.

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