An Op-ed by Noah Beck

Critics who call the Egyptian army’s recent coup “undemocratic” are placing form over substance and forgetting that the election of Mohamed Morsi was itself arguably undemocratic. With the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as the only organized political force in the election, there was little chance of meaningful competition in the mere six months between Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow and Egypt’s first free elections. That fact might have mattered much less had Morsi used his presidency to promote individual freedoms and build democratic, power-sharing institutions. Instead, Morsi reverted to the same undemocratic policies that he was elected to change. In effect, Morsi simply replaced a secular autocratic rule with an Islamist one.

Unsurprisingly, persecution of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority worsened under Morsi. According to Middle East expert Raymond Ibrahim, “The persecution of Copts [was] practically…legalized, as unprecedented numbers of Christians…[were] arrested, often receiving more than double the maximum prison sentence, under the accusation that they ‘blasphemed’ Islam and/or its prophet. It was also under Morsi’s reign that another unprecedented scandal occurred: the St. Mark Cathedral—holiest site of Coptic Christianity and headquarters to the Pope Tawadros himself—was besieged in broad daylight by Islamic rioters. When security came, they too joined in the attack on the cathedral. And the targeting of Christian children—for abduction, ransom, rape, and/or forced conversion—has also reached unprecedented levels under Morsi.”

Morsi’s reign was not only a disaster for human rights, the Egyptian currency lost more than a tenth of its value, making it harder for Egypt to import food and fuel. Morsi shunned the tough decisions needed to reform the Egyptian economy and gain the confidence of the IMF and foreign investors. His ties to the Muslim Brotherhood all but guaranteed economic failure, with his Islamist policies squelching the bikini-and-beer-style beach tourism that bolster seaside areas. Morsi’s Islamist leanings were also bad for non-beach tourism. Demonstrating a shocking lack of astuteness, last month Morsi appointed Adel Mohamed al-Khayat as the new governor of the ancient city of Luxor, despite his ties to the Islamist group responsible for the 1997 massacre of around 60 people in that same tourist destination. That decision might have solidified Morsi’s political power, but how could it possibly have benefited Egypt?

And what signal did Morsi send Egyptians and the rest of the world in August 2012, when he became the first Egyptian leader to host an Iranian president since the 1979 revolution imposed an Islamic theocracy on Iranians? How could Morsi’s attendance at a June 15 Islamist rally calling for jihad in Syria possibly serve Egypt, which can barely stay afloat much less enter foreign wars? With so little time to solve Egypt’s colossal problems, Morsi’s Islamist ineptitude quickly worsened virtually everything. To the credit of Egypt’s people and army, they swiftly reclaimed the power they had given to Morsi before he could take them further down the all too familiar path to autocratic oppression, made even worse this time through greater instability and rapid economic descent.
As the most populous Arab state, Egypt’s single greatest challenge for years has been employing its population, which now hovers around 85 million. That problem intensified when tourism and foreign investment dropped precipitously after 2011, when the decades-long stability of Mubarak’s rule was replaced by the unknown. It’s no wonder that unemployment for the first quarter of 2013 was an estimated 13.2 percent.

Recently sworn-in interim president Adly Mansour, and whomever ultimately succeeds him, will need to restore the stability, security, tourism, and investor confidence necessary to revive the economy. Any leader facing this daunting challenge should also realize that without better family planning policies, the country’s chronic overpopulation will continue to exacerbate the poverty, pollution, overcrowding, power outages, and illiteracy that plague Egypt.

To help restore domestic peace and foreign confidence in Egypt’s commitment to religious freedom, full protection and equal treatment must be given to Egypt’s Christians — the largest religious minority and a vital and ancient part of Egypt. Given how important Copts are to the history of Christianity, their community and holy sites should be a source of Egyptian pride. They can even help revitalize Egyptian tourism by attracting Christian tourists, provided that the Copts’ legitimate political and security concerns are adequately addressed.
The taboo of dealing with Israel should also be eliminated, if for no other reason than the ensuing economic benefits that could result. Israel’s successful transition from an agricultural, low-tech economy, to one based on entrepreneurial innovation can provide some guidance, inspiration, and opportunities for joint ventures in tourism, textiles, cleantech, and other sectors. Scandalous as it may seem to Egyptians, their northern neighbor’s 65-year democracy may even have some useful experience with separating religion and state, keeping the peace among an ethnically and religiously diverse population, protecting individual liberties, and developing democratic and power-sharing institutions. To realize the full potential of the 1979 treaty, Egypt’s media and politicians must start viewing the Israeli-Egyptian peace as a blessing rather than a curse.

Unfortunately, militarily toppling Morsi before his second year in office establishes a problematic precedent for checks on presidential power in Egypt. Due to the depth and magnitude of Egypt’s problems, even the most adept leader will probably disappoint “the street” one year into office. Historical perspective may be useful here: the French Revolution was sparked by a fiscal crisis and demands for individual liberties that ultimately overthrew the absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries. That revolution involved about a decade of turmoil and tens of thousands of deaths before Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power in 1799. Fixing Egypt could be a long and bumpy road, but at least the repairs have started.

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and current geopolitical issues in the Middle East.