Egyptian coup sparks a reminder of Thailand's past
The coup in Egypt last week deserves examination for anyone interested in coups and democracies. And there are just enough similarities _ and differences _ to make a comparison with Thailand's own 2006 coup both enlightening and instructive.
Even as the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chairman, Gen Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi, was announcing that President Mohamed Morsi had been deposed and the constitution suspended, the opposition leaders were already characterising the action as a popular uprising of the Egyptian people. The general was flanked by opposition and religious leaders who each rose to the podium to give their blessings to the military-supported action.
In the ensuing days, the new leaders have been busy in international circles with a single message: this was no coup. With Western governments, they have been successful so far: the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States have all been careful to not to call the July 3 action a coup. One leader has called it "correct democracy". But closer to home, Turkey condemned the coup, as has even the African National Union. Congratulations for the popular uprising tellingly came from Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Thailand has become adept at bringing out numbers in protest, but nothing like Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is defiant and calling its supporters to resist. Three days after the coup, there is every sign to suggest that there will be an escalation of violence between the pro-coup and anti-coup forces.
The Egyptian military has been dreaming of a way to justify the deposing of a democratically elected president. What inspired the popular movement against Mr Morsi was his incompetence and failure to carry out the ideals of the 2011 uprising. No crime in that. But the new authority had to arrest them for something, so arrest warrants were issued for 300 leaders of Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. As of the writing of this article, there is no word on the fate of Mr Morsi.
The Thai military is much more honest when conducting a coup. Last time in 2006, Thai coup leaders didn't bother trying to sugar-coat the act by displaying civil society leaders. Instead, they divine the will of the majority and always speak for all of Thai society.
While Thai coup leaders don't attempt to depict the act as anything else, they ever champion the cause of the good coup. After the 2006 takeover, public relations emissaries from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and coup-friendly civil society representatives issued forth to foreign lands to insist that the putsch was not one of those bad coups, but a democratic one.
Coup leaders in Thailand are always armed with a list of justifications. Leading items are corruption and causing disunity, along with claims to protect the monarchy and generous accusations of lese majeste.
Coup rumours are much more common in Thailand, so when one really does happen, it generally catches people flat-footed. At least for the 2006 coup, opponents were slow to respond. Thais in the past eventually forget. But not so for the 2006 coup. It was not forgotten. The initially bloodless coup _ a former marker of a legitimate ouster _ finally became bloody in April-May 2010 when the full after-effects were finally felt.
Although not exactly comparable, these two coups show a similar reversal. In Egypt, it is the "more conservative" and rural Muslim Brotherhood denouncing the coup as illegal and demanding a return of duly-elected leaders, while it was the more "progressive" and "liberal" forces celebrating the takeover by a deeply entrenched and anti-democratic military.
In Thailand, it was the "uneducated", vote-selling and rural pro-Thaksin Shinawatra forces demanding a return of their democratically elected leader, against an urban, "educated" elite decrying parliamentary dictatorship.
In both cases, courts and other "neutral" (read: non-accountable) agencies played an important role in exacerbating conditions. After former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned and the military oversaw an interim period, the newly appointed election commission disqualified many of the leading candidates for president. In the end, there was no liberal candidate of any prominence left. The Muslim Brotherhood was stuck with the "back-up" candidate Mr Morsi against a Mubarak-era official.
Once elected, Mr Morsi's administration was hobbled when the constitutional court nullified the elections of the People's Assembly. In reaction, Mr Morsi promulgated a new constitution which in part took away some power of the courts and the military. Now the head of the constitutional court has been made acting head of the new government. There was no lese majeste charge available for this republic, but there was the next best thing _ 12 leaders were charged with contempt of court and forbidden to leave the country.
In Thailand, Thaksin increased his own power in the name of his large majority wins in the House of Representatives, and similarly, in part to exert more civilian control over the military. The courts annulled one election, removed two prime ministers, and banned members of Thaksin's political party. The coup government enacted its own constitution and efforts to amend it have run into judicial blocks and threats of military coups.
The occurrence of coups is a sign of unresolved and conflicting visions of the distribution of political power in a society as well as, of course, of a powerful and unaccountable military. Democracy _ participation in elections and acting in accordance to a constitution that defines the rules of the game _ creates the space and framework necessary to work these things out.
A coup alienating half the population and thwarting the will of the majority is not a good strategy in resolving the inevitable problems of democracy. The solution is not limiting democracy but rather increasing it.
David Streckfuss is a research fellow at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and writes on democracy, impunity, and human rights.