We've seen this before. A leader wins elections with less than a majority of the vote, then takes radical actions that unnerve the country. The leader's economic ignorance sends the economy into a tailspin. Crime and disorder skyrocket. Laws are neutered. Amid the peoples' cries for change, the military takes over, proclaiming that its goal is to restore democracy and the rule of law. The middle-class celebrates, the judiciary blesses the event, and the West prefers the new government to the radicals who had been elected. But this is not Egypt -- it is Chile in 1973, when General Pinochet ousted then-President Allende.
We know what happened in Chile. The coup leaders issued decree laws granting emergency powers, similar to those now emerging from Egypt. They rounded up left-wing supporters of Allende -- just as Egypt's government has issued arrest warrants for 300 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. They got sign-off from a Supreme Court that blatantly took ideological sides, preferring the military to the communists, just as Egypt has appointed a judge as interim leader to sanitize their take over. Their murders were often covered-up as "shoot-outs", and frequently took place after protests, a fact which gives a harrowing overtone to Egypt's killing of 50 protestors and wounding over 400 others.
In Chile, these actions heralded a 17-year reign of torture, disappearances, and murder. Much of this was supported by the West, and by middle-class Chileans themselves, who disliked the left-wing "communists", felt pleased that "order" had been restored, and dismissed reports of regime brutality against people they viewed as undermining the state.
Egypt is not Chile -- but history is useful. So are local examples, which also bode ill. In 1992, Algeria's military stepped in when the Islamic Salvation front was on the verge of victory. Instead of the government-led terror of Latin America's military regimes, Algeria got a decade-long civil war.
In other words: a military takeover, even after "people power" protests, is not democracy, and it doesn't create stability. Historically, when militaries intervene to curb low-quality elected leadership, whether in Chile, Algeria, or elsewhere, their rule generally leads to state-sanctioned repression. It also often creates a violent backlash. The government increases repression to quell the violence, which in turn creates terrorist movements that start local and sometimes spill across borders. That is what Egypt is in for -- and it is a contagion that could affect the rest of the Middle East if Egypt doesn't get back on track.
This is not a "made-in-America" coup, nor are Egypt's policies ours to dictate. However, Egyptians feel that America plays a strong role in their politics, thanks to our 30-year support for their former dictator. We'll be blamed no matter what we do. And any actions will be interpreted through the lens of conspiracy theories ranging from a belief that we supported the Muslim Brotherhood's election, to those claiming we were behind the military, which was behind the protests, which ousted Morsi.
Given that we can't win in public opinion, we should do what is smart for regional stability: call a coup what it is, distance ourselves from the actions of Egypt's military, and use our leverage to press for a return to elections.
Few will defend the way President Mohamed Morsi ruled. His economic ignorance caused Egypt's GDP to plummet. Crime had trebled. Power outages added misery in the summer heat. Meanwhile, his political program included appointing radicals to key positions -- such as giving Luxor a mayor who sprang from a group responsible for the massacre of tourists at their pyramids and the crippling of their economy. He tolerated the killing and harassment of Egypt's Christians and other minorities -- including the lynching of a prominent Shi'a cleric. And he had begun dismantling democratic institutions just beginning to emerge after decades of autocratic rule.
As the massive protests last week showed, the majority of Egyptians wanted him out. That is exactly how democracy leads to the taming of Islamist forces. Having won because they were well-organized and seen as less corrupt, Egypt's Islamists showed themselves incompetent at ruling, and lost the respect of the people. Elections, occurring as scheduled, would allow Egyptians the chance to throw the bums out. The years before the election would allow diverse political parties to organize, campaign, and gain support. Egypt is a classic example of how to sideline radical forces through democracy, by letting them hang from their own rope.
Instead, Egyptian Islamists now feel that their legitimately elected government was stolen. Many may decide that their attempt to act through politics has failed, and will return to violence, as Shadi Hamid described in his recent New York Times piece.
A coup is the military takeover of an elected government; even if the government subsequently harms democratic institutions, even if it was only elected by a plurality. Stating the obvious would allow the U.S. to clearly distance itself from the military's actions. Showing that the U.S. does not support coups, even when they unseat leaders we dislike, is an essential statement to make for democracy in the region.
U.S. laws against providing military aid to countries after a coup mean that our aid to Egypt's military would have to stop. We should use that leverage, explaining to the military that we would like the aid to flow again, but that it will be reliant on two conditions:
First, human rights abuses, imprisonment, and overwhelming force against protesters are all unacceptable -- whether these abuses are by the military, the police, or forces that may provide the state with "plausible deniability."
Second, the military can't lead the government. They must follow through on a timetable for elections with policies that allow any non-violent party to contest -- including Islamists. Elections need not be rushed -- giving all parties time to organize and campaign is important to legitimacy. However, there need to be clear signs that a transfer of power back to democratically elected forces is happening in the near term.
Few in Egypt or America have love to spare for radical Islam or elected leaders who twist democratic institutions. But coups create a slippery slope. To paraphrase lines written after the Holocaust, "first they came for the radicals, and I did not speak out because I was not a radical. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak."