Just hours after the Egyptian army deposed Mohammed Morsi on July 3, President Obama expressed "deep concern" at the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected leader and reiterated U.S. support for "the democratic process and respect for the rule of law." He instructed the State Department to re-evaluate more than 1 billion dollars in aid earmarked to Egypt.
Now is not the time to punish Egypt, however. If democracy is the goal, then the United States should celebrate Egypt's coup.
Morsi may have won an election, but he despised the democracy which propelled him to power. Rather than consult and build coalitions, he sought to dominate.
Last November, just five months into his presidency and with deliberations over a new constitution deadlocked, Morsi seized dictatorial power. As guardian of the revolution, he argued, his power should trump the judiciary. If the Egyptian people wanted constitutional order, his allies suggested, they should approve the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood drafted in the absence of any quorum.
The Egyptian people — forced to choose between a one-man dictatorship or a flawed constitutional order — narrowly approved the constitution, ending Morsi's brief autocracy but giving him what he wanted even more: Imposition of the Brotherhood's religious agenda on a population that wanted jobs, not Islamic law. One article, for example, charged the state with protecting public morality, which Morsi interpreted in the most conservative, religious manner.
Too often, policymakers equate democracy only with elections. Hence, George W. Bush's administration blessed elections in Palestine and Lebanon, never mind that Hamas and Hezbollah maintained military wings to seize by force what they could not win at the ballot box.
The broader truth — elections are just one pillar of democracy. The others are protection of human rights, equality under the law and active public participation.
Morsi trampled human rights and denied women and minorities equality. The public did participate, but not in the way Morsi hoped: 20 million Egyptians signed petitions calling for the president's ouster.
Nor did the coup end democracy, for it had yet to take root. The late Harvard theorist Samuel Huntington wrote that countries could only be considered democracies when they had had two consecutive changes of government via free elections.
Building democracy from scratch is never easy. For every Nelson Mandela — willing to step down at the end of his term — there are politicians like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani, both of whom refused to relinquish power at the end of their term. Abbas is currently in the ninth year of his four-year term, while the term-limited Barzani just canceled elections which would end his final term.
When leaders overreach, and checks and balances are lacking, the only recourse is to force their removal. In 2009, the Honduran army ousted President Manuel Zelaya after he violated the constitution and rebuffed the Supreme Court. While the White House condemned the Honduras coup, the military relinquished power and scheduled new elections; Honduran democracy is stronger today as a result.
South Korea, a country in which America invested thousands of lives and billions of dollars, faced both coups and dictatorship into the 1980s. With time, however, democratic culture took root and today, South Korea is among Asia's most vibrant democracies.
Taiwan's transition from brutal military rule to democracy followed more than a decade of slow reform. Perhaps more than elections, it was the slow speed of reform that allowed democracy to sink roots that Taiwanese today consider unshakable.
The White House praises Turkey's democracy, but democratic tradition did not come easily to Turkey, which weathered four coups between 1960 and 1997. Each coup prevented Turkey's descent into authoritarianism.
In 1960, President Adnan Menderes threatened to move Turkey into the Soviet sphere, a trajectory for dictatorships, not democracies. In both 1971 and 1980, civil unrest threatened to tear Turkey apart, and in 1997, Erdogan's Islamist predecessor sought to undermine the constitution.
Coups may be signs of failure, but they can also be signs of rebirth. It is an irony of history that too much emphasis on the process of democracy sometimes leads to the opposite result. The Egyptian military may have ended Morsi's ambition, but it has offered Egypt its last best chance to avoid Islamist dictatorship.
Rather than punish the perpetrators, Obama should offer two cheers for Egypt's generals and help Egyptians write a more democratic constitution to provide a sounder foundation for true democracy.