Many Americans are still trying to figure out what happened last week in Egypt. Was Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, overthrown in a military coup? Or did the army protect the country’s fledgling democratic system by removing an increasingly autocratic head of state who refused to share power with other parties?
The question is actually fairly easy to answer, by way of an analogy close to home. President Obama’s push for universal health care proved so unpopular among Republican lawmakers that administration officials like former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly “begged” the president to drop the issue and move on. Nonetheless, in spite of opposition from the GOP as well as his own party, Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. At no point during or after the highly contentious process did any reasonable person argue that the military should remove the president from the office to which the American people elected him.
What happened in Egypt last Wednesday was a coup. The White House has resisted labeling it as such not because it can’t tell the difference, but because it fears that calling a spade a spade would strip the United States of the little influence it has over events in Egypt. For more than three decades, Washington has given the Egyptian military tens of billions of dollars, a poker chip that, because of a U.S. law preventing aid to militaries involved in a coup, the administration would forfeit if it called the military’s action by its proper name. Moreover, in tip-toeing around the issue, the White House likely wishes to avoid alienating an army that has taken Egypt’s political future into its hands.
The millions of Egyptians who support the military’s action but refuse to call it a coup have a different excuse: They have very little experience with democratic political culture. In order to explain the coup to themselves—they are calling it an “evolutionary step” in Egyptian democracy—anti-Morsi Egyptians have resorted to analogies that obscure rather than illuminate the issue. For instance: If your car had a flat tire, goes one quip makings the rounds among the young revolutionaries of the Tamarrod movement camped out at Tahrir Square, you wouldn’t wait three years to get it fixed. The reality is that if you think democracy is like a car, then you are never going to have a functioning democracy—and your car might not ride so smoothly either.
Egypt’s experiment in democracy—which the coup may well have extinguished—means that Egyptians must be judged according to the same standards that hold for all citizens of a democracy. Consider again our own situation in comparison: Morsi is faulted for not giving enough room to other stakeholders in Egyptian politics, but the same holds for Obama who, like every American president before him, appointed allies, not opponents to key posts. Morsi complained that his political adversaries were simply playing to block him at every turn. So has Obama, who for five years has gotten a lot of mileage out of painting the Republicans as obstructionists. Whether that’s accurate or not, what illuminates what happened in Egypt last week is the fact that no one, not even his most determined opponents on the Hill, would ever dream of calling for the military to topple the commander-in-chief.