The African Union has been very proud of its zero tolerance for coups on the continent. The policy is part of what they have termed shared democratic values which all countries are expected to incorporate into a common set of constitutional convergence principles that automatically elicit joint action when power is seized through unconstitutional means. The policy is aimed at making Africa’s coup makers and autocrats insecure in the expectation that they would get support from their fellow rulers elsewhere on the continent. The policy is implemented in concert with the United Nations and when the coups happened in Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Guinea, and Madagascar, the immediate response was a universal demand for the restoration of the legitimate government. This demand did not always succeed but at least, there was unanimity in taking a position and real pressure was placed on putchists to make it impossible for them to “normalize” their unconstitutional governments.
It will be recalled that the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), first decided to reject military coups in 1999. When the OAU transformed itself into the AU in 2002, the new organization’s founding Constitutive Act included among its principles “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of government.” In 2007, an AU summit approved a new African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. It’s coming into force has been slow but it clearly prohibits any “perpetrators” of unconstitutional changes from participating in subsequent elections and even warns that coup makers will be tried for their crime against the democratic state.
The Egyptian coup of Wednesday, 3rd July absorbed my attention in an intense way. It’s a rare coup because we had a 48 hour ultimatum announcing it and a precise timing of when the coup would occur. At the appointed time, there was an announcement that the military leader will soon make the announcement. Troops were moved into position openly with close coverage by the world media. What astonished me was how a coup can be announced so openly and so long before it occurs and for once the international community was silent on its policy of zero tolerance for coups. It was only after the supporters of President Morsi started their protests on Friday that the African Union suspended Egypt. The world took its cue from President Obama who declared that he was “deeply concerned” about the events and would like to see a speedy return to civilian rule. What was loud in his statement was the absence of a demand for the reinstatement of the legitimately elected President Morsi. The rest of the world did likewise.
Of course the American regime is close to the Egyptian military that they support with $1.5 billion each year and the message is that there is concordance between the Egyptian military and the White House, a “good coup” is necessary to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power and install a liberal and secular regime. What struck me was that the Americans are about to invent a new “democratic” concept and I instinctively googled “good coup” and was astonished at the number of articles with that epithet that have been published before and since the affair broke out.
There was almost no questioning of the fact that the Egyptian military’s action in deposing President Mohamed Morsi met the definition of a military coup. Clearly, there is a transformation from zero tolerance for coups to legitimizing the so called “good coup” that is in progress. I believe that this is a dangerous development for the future of democracy. The argument that the military may have been spurred on by mass protests calling for it to intervene and Morsi’s government had been increasingly authoritarian is not convincing. Like all democrats, I was concerned with Morsi’s taking on sweeping powers on 22nd November last year and his inability to forge a broad alliance to resolve the country’s political crisis. The fact of the matter however is that he won the elections and the opposition lost. Getting the army to seize power and hand it over the opposition cannot be good for democracy.
I am not convinced by the argument that a coup could ultimately good for democracy. The argument that the military was merely enforcing the will of the people and safeguarding democracy from its real opponent, who, in this thinking, was Morsi is nonsensical. Yes, Morsi’s government was becoming authoritarian and there were growing concerns over protecting minority rights and creating space for genuine and lasting political competition. The fact of the matter however is that the long term impact of the coup will be the right of the military to determine when and under what circumstances a democratically elected regime could be removed.
The argument that the mass demonstrations against Morsi were a sort of direct democracy which created the legitimacy driver to allow the military “enforce the popular will” is flimsy. I am alarmed that there is significant current theoretical work to justify the “good coup”. Max Fisher in an article in the Washington Post of 5th July has drawn attention to the emergence of theories about the so called “democratic coup d’état,” which has been canvassed by law professor Ozan Varol in the Harvard International Law Journal. He had identified seven conditions for a coup to count as democratic:
(1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (2) the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime; (3) the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising; (4) the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; (5) the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (6) the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and (7) the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.
This theory is a rehash of Samuel Huntington’s theory about the military in Africa and we know that the military never helped the movement towards democracy, they retarded it for decades.
Fisher also draws attention to the research by Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov, published in the British Journal of Political Science that since the end of the Cold War, coups have become much more likely to be followed by a democratic election within five years. From 1945 through 1990, only 7 percent of coups were followed by an election. But from 1991 to 2006, it was 34 percent. Still fewer than half, but a remarkable rise. The future of democracy cannot be dependent on the army it must depend on the people and the people must act according to the rules of democracy itself, of the rule of law and the constitution.
The real issue about Egypt and its politics and political economy has been the pre-eminence of the army. Coming home, I ponder about the statement by National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki that the Nigerian military is deployed in 28 states “where they are involved in activities that are ordinarily not meant for them (Daily Trust, 5/7/2013).
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