Democracy is... saying goodbye without the gunfire

Richard Nixon managed it, and his party soon returned to power. The lesson from the Cairo coup last week could not have been more different

Share
Related Topics

Let us start with a compare and contrast exercise in the downfalls of national leaders – between downtown Washington DC on the evening of 8 August 1974, and Cairo, on pretty much any evening last week.

In the first instance, a Republican president was being forced from the office to which he had been re-elected less than two years earlier. Richard Nixon's fierce opponent Tip O'Neill, the future Democratic Speaker of the House, driving past the White House, was struck by the extraordinariness of the moment. "Isn't this the damnedest thing you ever saw," he remarked. Inside, the most powerful man in the world was ceding power. Outside, no protesters, no riot police, no tanks. Just a single policeman directing traffic in the gathering dusk.

The overthrow of Egypt's Islamist, but no less properly elected, president by the generals could not have been more different. In Cairo, there were massive demonstrations, as soldiers fired on Mohamed Morsi's supporters while his opponents rejoiced in the streets. In Washington, power passed smoothly to Nixon's constitutionally designated successor. In Egypt, the choice now seems to lie between a junta and civil war.

Make no mistake about what has just happened. Call it a "benign" coup or a "soft" coup, or merely the army's response to the overwhelming demand of the people – this was a military coup. Yes, Morsi made a mess of things, but in democracies, you change leaders at the ballot box, not through the barrel of a gun.

If Egypt is lucky, things could yet not work out too badly, along the lines of the 1997 coup in Turkey that overthrew the then Islamist government. But consider a worst-case scenario, Algeria 1992, when the military cancelled elections an Islamist party was set to win, plunging the country into a decade of ghastly violence.

But let's return to Washington 1974: why didn't the tanks roll and protesters storm the White House? That's not the way things are done in western democracies, is the instant, unthinking answer. But why not? Because – and this is the real difference between us and not only Egypt but a host of other countries in the Middle East and beyond – the parties vying for power have so much in common.

Yes, Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Labour, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have their quarrels. But what unites them is far more important: a belief in a secular society, the rule of law and the market economy; a reasonably fluid and meritocratic social structure, and the acceptance of a role for government. To be sure, opinions on the correct size of that government differ, as the seemingly eternal political gridlock in Washington testifies. But the fashionable talk of US "ungovernability" is nonsense. If it's ungovernability you're after, go to Syria, Egypt or Iraq.

It's easy to be cynical about the way western democracy works – not least because of the self-congratulation and hypocrisy in which it's so often cloaked. Alternation in power, it is rightly said, is possible only because alternative models of society are not in play. The political failures in Egypt and Syria provide opposite proof of that principle – when truly alternative models are on offer, be they religious or ideological, political alternation is impossible.

At the most basic level democracy, as we in the West understand it, works only because of a trust shared by both government and opposition: that if the other lot wins power at an election, your lot will have the chance to win it back. Coups, of course, by their nature, have throughout history mostly worked against alternation. Hitler might have imposed his dictatorship from within government, but it was a coup nonetheless, underpinned by an enabling law that gave the Nazis total power and enforced by savage thuggery. The most momentous coup in modern history, in Petrograd in October 1917, banished the alternation of power completely, until Soviet Communism imploded in 1991.

From this perspective, the greatest failing of the Middle East's repressive military-backed regimes – their refusal to allow the development of a significant opposition – is obvious. Whatever opposition that did survive was clandestine and radicalised, making it even more likely that it would be demonised and persecuted by government.

But the collapse of communism and the Arab Spring has shown that no autocratic regime survives for ever. Fortunately, much of eastern Europe had old democratic traditions to fall back on. Not so the Arab world where organised oppositions simply did not exist to fill the vacuum, as the Syrian tragedy proves.

Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world, offered a chance to break this dismal pattern. But that chance may well have been thrown away by last week's coup, with grim implications for the region. President Morsi and his Islamic Brotherhood might have governed badly, but they might also have been removed from power at the next election. Now they, and Islamic movements everywhere, will have concluded that playing by the rules is pointless. Inevitably, they will become more radical. And as for an 8 August 1974 Washington DC moment in Cairo, forget it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star