On July 4, the United States celebrated 225 years as a nation based on a Constitution that promotes democratic government. However, as our nation was celebrating democracy, it was dying in Egypt. On July 3, the military overthrew a democratically elected president who had received 52 percent of the vote in a presidential election just one year before. The military jailed President Mohammad Morsi and arrested Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Nevertheless, the real loser was democracy itself.
Granted, the Arab world is not known for democracy. Autocrats have dominated governments across the Middle East for decades. Egypt has been no exception. Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarek collectively ruled Egypt for nearly 60 years. They brooked little or no dissent, used elections as window dressing for their dictatorships and relied on the military to enforce their power.
The Arab Spring in 2011 was supposed to end all that. Mubarek was overthrown after three weeks of protests and Egyptians began to create a democracy where elections mattered. Elections were held for a parliament, and then followed a presidential election. Despite the hopes of the West, the Muslim Brotherhood won, but there was little dispute that they had done so fairly.
The new government in Egypt promises to restore democratic government. But that will not be easy now. Not only has the precedent been set of military rejection of a democratic government, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political group in Egypt, has little incentive to participate in new elections. And if they refuse to run candidates, does that mean they will simply remain on the sidelines politically? Not likely. Instead, they may conclude that other means of taking control, undemocratic means, are necessary.
The response from the U.S. government to this assault on democracy was far too weak. The Obama administration was torn between wanting to get rid of a regime it didn't like and watching a democratically-elected government be overthrown by the military. Unfortunately, too often the United States has favored the former rather than the latter. The result in each case was a severe blow to democracy that it did not easily recover from.
For example, in the past, the U.S. government so disrespected democratic elections that it actually assisted military coups in other nations. In 1953, the Iranian military, with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and his democratically elected government. A year later it was the popularly elected administration of Guatemala's President Jacob Arbenz Guzman that suffered a coup by the military supported by the CIA. And in 1973, the U.S. government aided the Chilean military in deposing Salvador Allende, the duly elected president of the country. In each of these cases, democracy took a long time returning or never did. Iran was ruled by a military dictator for the next 26 years and has been governed by an Islamist theocratic council since then. Guatemala spent the next 30 years under military rule, while Chile, which before had experienced a long history of democratic governance, was ruled by a military general for 17 years.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has not assisted coups of democratically elected leaders it didn't like, but it has not spoken out enough when they have been overthrown. In 2009, the legally elected president of Honduras was arrested by the military and expelled from the country. The U.S. government verbally protested, but the Obama administration has even refused to call the ouster a coup because U.S. law prohibits aid to a government that deposes a democratically elected administration. This month it was Morsi, and once again the administration is refusing to use the term "coup" in order to continue U.S. aid to Egypt.
Formally, national policy prohibits support for a coup that overturns democratic elections. But the Obama administration is not defending that policy. The United States should be a leader in signaling that democratic elections should be respected and that the way to remove a government is through the ballot box and not guns and tanks. The administration should put teeth into its pro-democracy statements to make clear to all that government should be democratic, not dictatorial.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu