FRIDAY marks the sixth month of mass demonstrations in Egypt. Beginning in February, the streets of Cairo have repeatedly been taken over by demonstrators advocating one cause or the other.
The manifestations that began in the early spring were initially led by small groups of opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration of President Mohammed Mursi. Inspired by fears of a drift towards a confessional state and the inability of Mursi’s government to respond to demands for greater social justice, they took to the streets in demonstrations that multiplied and began to assume a more militant tone towards the end of May. By last month, their demands had escalated to calls for Mursi’s resignation, which had the support of thousands, as could be seen by the growing size of the demonstrations and the militancy with which they pressed their demands.
Egypt’s hot summer is one of the ironic outcomes of the spring of 2011, when a coalition of secularists — democrats, media-savvy young people, liberals, socialists — united with Islamists to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak. Even during those heady days, it was possible to discern the lines of fracture within that coalition. But all observers of Egyptian politics took heart from the fact that we were witnessing unprecedented mass political action bringing about change in a North African country. Guesstimates of the levels of participation mentioned figures as high as 18% of the population. Before the spring of 2011, the only North African country that had experienced mass involvement on a scale close to that was Algeria, during its eight-year war of liberation against France.
In sub-Saharan Africa, it was mass anticolonialist movements, usually led by those in the liberal professions, that spearheaded the drive to independence. North Africa was different. In both Egypt and Libya, as in many other Arab states, it was conspiratorial groups of "enlightened" military officers who staged coups to unseat procolonialist or weak conservative regimes such as that of King Idris. Such radical juntas usually won popular support by unseating an unrepresentative government. Left-leaning social policies sometimes consolidated popular support. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser won the hearts of his people and those of other Arab countries by his ardent advocacy of Arab unity and opposition to western impositions. The proverbial "man on horseback" played an unusual role in North African politics, in most instances ostensibly intervening in politics to give expression to popular discontent.
While many an ambitious colonel in sub-Saharan Africa mounted a coup, they usually claimed to be motivated by the perceived corruption of the incumbent civilian government. Their records in office betray the outright greed of the senior officers, a segment of the elite that often feels excluded from the benefits of the "pork-barrel" politics practised by civilian politicians.
Military juntas are usually the creations of the most conservative and reactionary sectors of society. Typically led by the scions of wealthy landed interests, closely allied to foreign business interests, the juntas that staged a coup in Greece in 1967, the one led by Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina and the junta led by Augusto Pinochet of Chile, explicitly stated that their purpose was the defence of existing property rights and the suppression of left-wing political trends.
Despite the reputations they later acquired as strongmen, the juntas that seized power in Egypt and Libya were initially borne on a wave of popular goodwill, and relaxed the more abhorrent features of the old regime. Though led by practising Muslims, they were secular and put in place liberal policies that did not privilege Islam at the expense of other faiths. One of the ominous silences about Syria’s civil war is the fear expressed by Christians about their future if President Bashar al-Assad is overthrown.
Liberals, radical democrats and socialists are usually strongly opposed to military coups on principle. As political currents that espouse government based on the popular will expressed through the electoral process, they regard even "progressive coups" as the usurping of political power by unrepresentative minorities. The US and the European Union usually pounce on African governments perceived to be undemocratic. While double standards are a fact of politics, their shameless conduct, oscillating between a deafening silence and wordy equivocations, should be a source of embarrassment.
Barely a week after President Barack Obama lectured African youth on the virtues of democracy and good governance, his embrace of Egypt’s "liberal" junta is shocking. Egyptians will serve themselves well by moving as swiftly as possible to democratic elections. And, this time around, the government they elect must insist on the military returning to barracks.
• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.