The United States and other Western nations often claim to be engaged in “democracy promotion” around the world, but is this actually the case? After all, isn’t a core component of the democratic process accepting as legitimate the government that the people elect to govern them? It is becoming increasingly evident that the democratic model promoted by powerful Western nations includes an unspoken caveat that the only elected governments deemed legitimate and acceptable are those that represent Western liberal values. And if a government should actually advocate a different set of values, such as those rooted in the Islamic tradition, then it must be delegitimized as occurred recently in Egypt and previously in Algeria and Palestine. The inevitable consequence of such an approach for Muslims will be a growing disenchantment with democracy and an increasing acceptance of violence to resolve political differences.
In June 2012, Egypt’s presidential election was won by Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party with 52 percent of the vote over independent candidate Ahmed Shafik who garnered 48 percent. The election amounted to a contest between the two dominant social sectors that participated in the Arab Spring protests that brought down the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi represented much of the Islamic community, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood movement, while Shafik was the candidate of many secular Egyptians and the preferred candidate of Western nations. One year after the election, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians again took to the streets in an effort to oust Morsi in the manner that they had ousted Mubarak. One fundamental difference this time around was the fact that Morsi was not a dictator; he had gained office through elections largely deemed to be free and fair.
Protesters believed that Morsi was slowly transforming Egypt into an Islamic state and that he had failed to effectively address the country’s economic problems. Morsi’s approval rating had slipped from 74 percent to 47 percent during his first year in office, but the same poll also showed that despite growing dissatisfaction he would still easily defeat his closest challenger were an election to be held. But rather than allowing the president to finish his five-year term and then trying to replace him through the ballot box, the protesters sought his immediate removal from power. Can low approval ratings and large public protests be considered legitimate reasons for implementing a military coup to overthrow a democratically-elected government? If so, then there are many democratically-elected leaders throughout the world who could be legitimately removed from office by force.
It would be a rare day indeed that a Western government would acquiesce to the demands of protesters who took to the streets demanding the ouster of a democratically-elected leader who had not violated the country’s constitution simply because a significant portion of the population was not happy with the policies that leader implemented. And yet, given this reality, a few days prior to Morsi’s ouster, Obama had the nerve to declare that “democracy is about more than elections” and that they are “also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country.”
While Obama is correct that there is more to democracy than merely holding elections, such a participatory system does not exist in the United States where democracy has been primarily reduced to citizens going to the polls every four years—with the exception of the participation of corporations in political decision-making through their lobbying efforts. And it is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would have responded in the same manner to the “democratic” protests and ensuing military coup if it had been the country’s Islamic population that had taken to the streets to oust the more moderate Shafik had he prevailed in last year’s presidential election instead of Morsi.
The U.S. response to the overthrow of the Morsi government suggests at least tacit support from Washington for the Egyptian military’s actions. The Obama administration has refused to call the military’s removal of Morsi a “coup,” but what else is the forcible overthrow of a government by its military? The Obama administration is engaging in such verbal gymnastics in order to avoid adhering to U.S. law, which requires that Washington cut off all aid to any military that carries out a coup against a democratically-elected government.
The fact that Obama has failed to withhold the more than $1 billion in aid provided annually to the Egyptian military—second highest recipient of U.S. aid in the world after Israel—makes evident that the forcible overthrow of the Morsi government was at the very least acceptable to Washington and may have even received U.S. blessing beforehand—after all, it is difficult to believe that the Egyptian military would risk losing its primary financial backer by undertaking such an extreme action unilaterally.
So why are the United States and other Western nations so willing to tolerate the forcible overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Egypt? The bottom line is the fact that the government was headed by an Islamic party. Some analysts have stated that the post-coup protests and violence—most of the latter is being perpetrated by the U.S.-backed military—could see Egypt descend into a conflict similar to that currently being waged in Syria. But a more accurate comparison would be that of Algeria in 1991, when an election victory by Islamists was nullified by that country’s military.
When parliamentary election results in Algeria made it apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front would win a two-thirds majority, the military stepped in and annulled the election rather than allow an Islamic party to gain power. The United States and France supported the coup because they were opposed to the establishment of an Islamic government in Algeria, even though it would have been a democratically-elected government that represented the wishes of a majority of Algerians. The price of this abrogation of the democratic process was a civil war that resulted in the deaths of more than 150,000 people over the next decade.
Similarly, in Palestine in 2006, the Palestinian people voted in favor of the Islamic party of Hamas over the more moderate Fatah Party, with the former winning 76 seats to the latter’s 45, thereby allowing Hamas to head the government. The United States and the European Union responded to the election results by immediately cutting off funding to the new Hamas-led government and allowing Israel to implement an inhumane blockade of the Hamas stronghold of Gaza.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to Hamas’ election victory by declaring that in order “for a nation to be truly democratic it must renounce any use of terrorism.” What Harper was really saying was that a democratically-elected government must renounce any use of “Islamic” terrorism against “Western” interests. After all, Harper has been far less concerned about the state terrorism waged by the elected government of Israel against Palestinian civilians or by the United States and its allies against the Iraqi and Afghan populations. In short, the Palestinian people dared to elect a government to power that challenged Western interests.
The message from the West to the peoples of Algeria, Palestine and Egypt has been clear: we want you to become democratic and to hold elections, but you are not allowed to elect an Islamic party to power. In other words, we will only recognize a government chosen by the people if it promotes Western liberal values and serves Western interests. This hypocritical approach toward democracy can only lead to disenchantment with the democratic process for many Muslims and provide increasing support for more radical fundamentalist Islamic movements that promote armed struggle as the only means for achieving power.
Ultimately, the United States and other Western nations cannot have their cake and eat it too; they cannot promote democracy with the caveat that people only elect governments acceptable to the West. As uncomfortable as many people in the West may feel about the presence of an Islamic government in a Middle Eastern nation, we cannot refuse to respect the democratic wishes of the people of those countries if we truly wish to promote democracy. To do so is yet another example of our imperialist arrogance and hypocrisy.