Egyptians are becoming ever more conscious of the fact that democracy means more than the right to vote and hold elections. They have discovered that only a continuous monitoring of the power and actions of a government can secure a safe transition from dictatorship to free society and others could learn much from their experience, writes Dr Behrooz Behbudi, founder of the Centre for a Democratic Iran

In the early months of the uprisings of Arab peoples against their governments, the so called ‘Arab Spring’, Egypt was the scene of popular protests against the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak. The lack of political freedom combined with economic hardships sparked the outburst by Egyptians demanding better lives and democratic rights.

Compared to outcomes in other Arab states, the freedom movement in Egypt could be termed as being the most successful. Unlike Libya and Syria, where the protest movements against ruling regimes resulted in bloody civil wars Egypt, as a nation with entrenched civic traditions, benefited from the neutrality of its national army. In the recent conflicts between Egyptians and their government it has been instrumental in avoiding a civil war and the collapse of society. The military stepped in to play the umpire; a development that encourages optimism with regard to the future peace and prosperity of the country.

The Egyptian army continued to play its role immediately after the fall of Mubarak’s regime, when it stood in support of the aim of Egypt’s various political parties to form a transitional government and later hold the free elections, which returned the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

Ever since the 25 January Revolution of 2011, the Egyptian people have maintained a daily presence in Tahrir Square as a symbolic reminder of their struggle for democracy. On the second anniversary of the Revolution, millions of Egyptians gathered there to demand President Mohammed Morsi’s resignation over his failure to realise the aspirations of the people.

Broken promises

Following his election as the new president of Egypt, Morsi had pledged he would represent the needs of all Egyptians regardless of their political or religious beliefs. However, his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood and the party’s political background as a religiously motivated organisation, won out and soon he was attempting to establish a new model of governance for Egypt, one in which secular politics would merge with Islamic laws and be subsumed.

According to Egypt’s opposition political parties, Morsi’s government deviated from the original objectives of the Revolution, whose aims were summarised as achieving democracy and rejecting any type of despotic rule. In the eyes of the majority, Morsi’s Muslim Brother- hood was in the process of rebuilding the old dictatorial system under the guise of religious laws. Outraged at the injustice, millions of Egyptians took their protests out onto the street, across the length and breadth of the coun- try and over 32 million genuine signatures were collected from citizens who supported his dismissal from power.

Coup or not?

Despite many calling it a military coup, the Egyptian army’s involvement in Morsi’s downfall and its subsequent conduct, indicate otherwise.

The authentic military coup of 1952 that overthrew the rule of Malek Farouq, led to the army becoming the real arbiter of power in Egypt for over half a century, a situation which continued until the dawn of the Arab Spring.

The military coup of 1936 by Franco ensured 33 years of dictatorial rule by the generals in Spain and the stifling of all social and political freedoms in that country. Many famous Spanish artists and intellectuals fled Franco’s regime rather than be persecuted for their opposition to the fascistic rule of the army in their homeland.

The Pakistani army, known for its ‘professionalism’ in staging repeated military coups, has managed to trans- form its country into a state where the only sign of democracy is the holding of ‘elections’ that merely serve to secure the further rule of the military over the people.

The purest example of a military coup however, was the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile at the hands of General Pinochet. There, a democratically elected government was toppled in a bloody and savage operation in 1973, involving the murder of Allende and the subsequent arrest and executions of thousands of his supporters.

In comparison, the Egyptian army’s involvement in the events that led to President Morsi’s downfall has been benign. The shouting of such slogans as: ‘People and army are brothers’ by Egyptians; the unequivocal support of all opposition parties, including Muslim and Christian religious establishments; the fact that after Morsi’s departure the military did not replace him with a junta – all demonstrate the popular nature of the role played by the Egyptian army.

It might even be necessary to coin a new word to describe the Egyptian army’s actions in saving the people’s Revolution. A word to describe helping people choose their own destiny free from the whims of dictators and safe from being hijacked by forces who do not subscribe to the democratic rights of those who elected them.

The Army had frequently and unambiguously warned that Egypt’s political crisis, which arose as a result of the religious and sectarian conflicts between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents, would lead to a bloody civil war. It predicted a disintegration of Egyptian society in which all parties involved would lose. TheArmy had two choices. Either it would stand by the ruling regime and crack down on the people’s resistance, participating in a dictatorial aggression against the very objective of the Egyptian Revolution; or it could stand with the people and force the Muslim Brotherhood to relinquish power and, in so doing, show its loyalty to the aspirations of those who wanted to halt the Brotherhood’s islamisation of their country.

Lessons for Iranians

Despite their many apparent ideological differences, if there has been any outstanding similarity between Morsi’s short lived government in Egypt and the 35-year-long despotic rule of the mullahs in Iran, it is how both regimes manipulated the religious beliefs of their respective peoples to maintain political supremacy over all sections of their societies. In the case of the failed Morsi government, this abuse of faith led to the tragic killing of four Shia clerics at the hands of fanatical Salafis, an incident widely interpreted as a taste of things to come unless immediate action was taken.

While Egypt’s heroic struggle for democracy has be- come an example for the rest of the Arab world, Iranians should also take note, and reinforce their own legitimate demands for real transformation in all those areas of social, political and economic policy the ruling regime has adopted and seeks to control.

Meanwhile, Iran’s armed forces must grasp the message being sent out by the Iranian people. Sadly, during the June presidential election, all overt public demands for democracy were typically met with the vicious response demanded by the ruling regime. However, if the military choose to avoid clashes with people making legitimate public demands for change, the efforts of the government, which continues to abuse the Iranian people’s rights and religious beliefs by utilising despotic and corrupt policies to prolong its grip on power, would be further eroded and the process of reform a step closer to being realised.