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Egypt: Coup or Revolution? Whats in a name?

Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam Mona Eltahawy, the eminent Egyptian-American journalist, recently tweeted that Egypt is making western leaders and scholars redefine what democracy and coup detat are. I replied to her tweet saying, maybe thats because they were trying to understand regime changes according to pol sci textbook definitions. Regime changes rarely unfold according to textbook definitions of democracy, coup, or revolution. However, what makes coups and revolutions similar, if not identical, at the most general level is that both are unconstitutional means of changing ruling regimes, and, as such, its hard to make an ordinal ranking between them. If the distinction is not that helpful, and perhaps inconsequential, then I wish to call particular attention to John Lockes idea of a right to revolution as an important element of western conceptions of liberal democracy. Even if you adamantly adhere to these conceptual distinctions, its hard to dismiss the fact that the Morsi regime was removed through a mix of military coup detat following popular mass participation in the streets. What then? Recall that it was only two years ago that millions of Egyptians, from diverse economic, social and political backgrounds, toppled down the regime of Hosni Mubarak in a spectacular show of solidarity. When Vice President Omar Suleiman announced on February 11, 2011, that Mubarak would be stepping down as president and handing power over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, almost every analyst worth his salt never dared to call it a military coup detat. Soon after the June 24 announcement of the presidential election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood declared the Shura council and constituent assembly unconstitutional, decreed presidential decisions beyond the reach of judicial review, and passed a draconian civil society law. In view of this, and the damning statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the state of democracy, freedom, and justice in Egypt, it is crystalclear that the so-called revolution that toppled Mubarak and ushered in Egypts first free and fair elections, was rendered meaningless. Of course, Egypt was obviously in need of a new constitutional framework, but Morsi and the Brotherhood had hijacked the process and limited broad participation for all sectors of Egyptian political and civil society. Many Egyptians considered this state-of-affairs a major step backwards and popular dissent mobilized on the streets

In my opinion, it is silly to ask whether its a coup detat or a revolution. The more serious question that should be asked is, are the Egyptian people securing the change they intended to bring about? Eltahawy agrees with an Indeed. But I think it is too early to answer this question. However, let me share with you why I think Mohamed ElBaradei is the right choice for leadership. El Baradei is a smart pick as he is a secularist, democrat, veteran technocrat, and has a full grasp of international relations. He also has sensible ideas on how to share Nile water resources with other riparian nations based on equity and fairness, rather than to engage in sabre rattling. In this connection, nothing testifies to his credentials for pacifism more than his persistent advocacy for a policy of multi-lateral diplomacy instead of war during the debates about nuclear weapons control in Iraq. As Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has aptly observed in a recent Foreign Policy article, [s]o the military acted. Some will term what it did as a coup detat. But this would be inaccurate. This political intervention came in response to a crisis; it was not its cause. Just as important, the events of recent days were not a power grab by Egypts military. The countrys soldiers wisely show little appetite for rule. They [are] entrusting temporary power with judicial authorities and setting up a timetable for political transition. This is as it should and must be. Even if I would not say, following David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, that every election in which Islamists declared victory should not be taken seriously for lack of democratic legitimacy, I do contend that Islamic parties should be given political space as long as they play by the rules and do not attempt to subvert the rules of the game once in power. Therefore, the transition in the coming days must include the Muslim Brotherhood as long as it does not turn to violence and focuses on governance that respects the basic human rights of all Egyptian citizens and conducts its foreign affairs in the spirit of good neighborliness. The enormous challenge facing the incoming Egyptian leadership is sheparding forward a democratic transition, turning around an economy in free fall, curtailing the illegitimate use of violence, including rape, and reaching a win-win solution with Ethiopia on the Nile. Egypts future leadership, whoever that may be, should not be deterred by the enormity of the challenges. Egypt needs reasonable, problem-solving politicians and liberal visionaries such as ElBaradei. Last, but not least, the transition leadership should commission an independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary killings committed in the course of the upheavals.

Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam holds a joint appointment at University of Texass LBJ School of Public Affairs and Austin Community College. Most recently, hes been appointed as Visiting Professor of Government at Suffolk University in Boston.