In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Egypt coup sets bad precedent for Latin America

The surprising support for Egypt’s military coup in U.S., European and Middle Eastern political circles may turn into a bad precedent for Latin America — it could help legitimize the idea that there are “good” military coups.

It’s hard not to reach that conclusion after watching U.S. politicians such as U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal applauding the July 3 coup that toppled Egypt’s democratically elected autocrat Mohammed Morsi, or seeing how the Obama administration is making all kinds of rhetorical pirouettes in order to avoid describing what has happened in Egypt as a coup.

And, even more ominously, it’s hard not to fear a legitimization of military coups everywhere when one reads that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were quick to congratulate the new Egyptian rulers, and have pledged $12 billion in economic aid to Egypt.

Shortly after the coup, Boehner, R-Ohio, stated that “one of the most respected institutions in the country is their military” and that the generals “on behalf of the citizens, did what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president.” Fellow Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor noted in a statement that the Egyptian military “is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today.”

In a July 4 editorial, The Wall Street Journal went as far as saying that “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.”

Granted, many supporters of Egypt’s coup rightly point out that Morsi himself had broken the democratic rules by imposing the will of his Islamic Brotherhood movement on all Egyptians, and becoming an elected autocrat — much like the late President Hugo Chávez became in Venezuela.

After his election by a slim margin in 2012, Morsi turned a blind eye to the persecution of Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims, and tried to assume absolute powers. On top of that, his incompetent management sank Egypt’s economy even further into chaos. And granted, the Egyptian coup enjoyed widespread popular support, as most coups do in their beginnings.

Supporters of the Egyptian coup also dismiss the argument that Morsi’s ouster will set a precedent for a greater tolerance for military coups in Latin America and other parts of the world. They say, accurately, that the latest wave of glorification of coups was set in motion in Latin America more than a decade ago by Chávez.

A former military officer who staged a failed coup in 1992, Chávez declared Feb. 4 — the day of his failed coup attempt — a national holiday after he was elected in 1998. The holiday is still being celebrated with military parades in Venezuela.

My opinion: Barring the most massive and systematic human rights abuses (I’m thinking of Germany under Adolf Hitler), there is no such thing as a “good” military coup against an elected leader. The militaries who take power almost always end up becoming dictators, violating human rights and helping turn the disastrous leaders they toppled into victims, and eventually into idols whose supporters sooner or later return to power.

That happened in Chile under Pinochet — who, by the way, spent 17 years in power and was only ousted under popular pressure — and in Argentina and Brazil under the generals who ruled in the 1970s. And it will most likely happen in Egypt, especially after this week’s killings of 51 Islamic militants in clashes with police, which will create new “martyrs” and give Morsi’s Islamic Brotherhood a new cause that will eclipse memories of his disastrous rule.

So what should be done with democratically elected presidents who become autocrats? There is no easy answer, but the best one in the long run is likely to be confronting elected despots with what we might call the rule of the 3 “P’s’’ — protests, pressure and patience. Egypt’s opposition should have united to win the legislative elections in October, and the presidential elections in three years.

Eventually, Morsi would have had to retrench from his growing authoritarianism, or become an even more repressive — and hated — dictator. Either way, he would have had a hard time clinging to power indefinitely.

I know, that’s a lot to ask of people who live under inept despots. But in the long run, protests, pressure and patience is a better recipe than military coups to avert an escalation of violence, and the eventual return of the rascals who had been overthrown.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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