A military coup deposed and jailed an elected president, also jailing the leaders of his party and suspending the constitution. This is Egypt in 2013, but it could also be Turkey in 1960. Indeed, many observers familiar with varieties of Middle Eastern democracy see familiar signs of Turkey’s brand of military-guarded democracy in Egypt’s current events. CBC reports some similarities between the two countries, but the article refers only tersely to “covert coups and postmodern coups.” This phrase refers to the alleged 1993 covert military coup and the 1997 resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in response to a military ultimatum.
Those observers who still wrestle with whether to label the Egyptian army’s intervention in politics last week a “coup” or not can replace every instance of the word “coup” with “ouster of the elected president under the alleged aegis of ‘popular sentiment’ represented by an uncounted number of protesters.” But I think when the commander-in-chief of the armed forces reads a decree which suspends the constitution, deposes the government, and has immediate force of governing law, followed by arrests of said leaders by soldiers, all the evidence points toward a military coup. Besides, “coup” is so much shorter than the alternative 19-word phrase.
But this Turkish model of Middle Eastern democracy, kept on a leash by the military to ensure its secularism, has probably been broken by current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had several hundred military personnel, including very senior generals, arrested and prosecuted for planning a coup. It may have been the success of that maneuver, and the fear of a military coup, which led Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi to order the former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Husayn Tantawi, to retire. Nevertheless, Mursi was deposed by a military headed by his own appointee as defense minister, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, perhaps attracted to the prior Turkish model for the power it gave the military.
But a military-policed democracy is not the only model for elections in the Middle East (even leaving aside the single-party “democracies” such as Syria and supreme monarchies such as Saudi Arabia):
- Iran polices its democracy by means of a “supreme leader” appointed for life, who also commands the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards which exist to protect the “principles of the Islamic Revolution” of 1979, thus resulting in a military-clerical establishment which differs from the Turkish military-led democracy primarily in the beards of the men who call the shots.
- Lebanon has a balkanized government which ensures that various religious groups have control of particular posts (the president is a Maronite Christian, the speaker for the parliament is Shi’ite, and the prime minister is Sunni, and parliamentary posts are allocated based on the population reported in the 1932 census).
- In Israel voters choose parties rather than candidates, and the leaders of the parties parcel out the parliamentary seats between them based on their proportion of the popular vote; only then does the parliament elect the prime minister without consulting the populace. Of course, Palestinians do not have a vote in choosing the government which approves plans for new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and whose military operates checkpoints restricting their freedom of motion.
- Jordan‘s king appoints members of the upper parliamentary “House of Senators,” while the lower “House of Deputies” is elected by the people, although opposition voices complain that the elections are rigged.
Each of these models is flawed in various ways, but it is not clear what other models of Middle Eastern democracy are available to Egypt. The post-2011 Libyan government has not yet written a constitution, and Sudan has its own military president following a 1989 coup. Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi was convicted in absentia to execution, a sentence widely believed to be a political move by Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Tunisia’s government has also not re-solidified following the 2011 revolution, and if Turkey has achieved a post-military democractic system, it remains to be seen how well it will fare. Although one frequently hears calls for “democracy,” the single word covers a wide range of governmental practices, and implementing a practical democracy is more challenging than calling for elections.