A Tale of Two Coups: Egypt and Honduras

| Friday, July 12th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Jose CardenasIt may be that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but in affairs of state a little consistency can save governments a lot of heartache. Witness the excruciating contortions of Barack Obama’s administration over the last few days in trying to explain why the coup in Egypt was not, in fact, a coup.

As it turns out, the entire matter could have gone a bit more smoothly if the administration had been a bit more circumspect and not reacted in such a ham-handed fashion to the removal of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

Back then, the Hugo Chávez acolyte provoked a crisis in Honduras by defying the country’s National Congress and the courts in trying to force an illegal constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran Constitution, just as Chávez had done to consolidate power and gut separation of powers. In a process the Law Library of the U.S. Congress later found to be constitutional, the courts directed the military to remove him from power. (He was subsequently shipped off to Costa Rica.)

Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s response was unabashedly punitive. A top State Department official told Congress, “In my studies of military coups in Latin America, this was a classic military coup.” The administration then began cutting off economic assistance to Honduras and further bullying the interim government by denying business and travel visas to Hondurans who supported Zelaya’s removal.

As Obama himself explained, “America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies…. We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.”

Fast-forward to today. It is clear the administration did itself no favors with that response, especially because it is so obvious that what occurred in Egypt was indeed a military coup.

This isn’t to criticize the administration’s reluctance to cut off U.S. assistance to Egypt, which is otherwise mandated by Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act. That would be counterproductive and reduce U.S. leverage to influence events there in a positive direction.

It is, however, to argue that the administration needs to quickly develop a coherent policy on how to deal with a phenomenon of recent vintage: Governments that are elected democratically but then proceed to govern undemocratically.

Call it the Hugo Chávez doctrine. Like Chávez and like Zelaya, deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy abused his electoral mandate by manipulating democratic institutions to consolidate power and riding roughshod over the rights and voices of the opposition. What compounded the problem, as in Honduras, was the U.S. administration’s reluctance to speak out about Morsy’s anti-democratic actions and his disregard of opposition views. That is not interfering in the country’s internal politics, nor is it choosing sides. It is called standing on principle.

Under the Chávez doctrine, it is wise to remember that governments represent people — all of them — not just those sectors of society that happened to vote for a particular set of leaders. In fact, that is the antithesis of choosing sides. Governments come and go, but people stay. U.S. policy needs to be less concerned about how popular the United States is with a particular government than how the country is seen by the people. And, in that regard, a little consistency can be a virtue.

The lesson to be learned from the Egyptian debacle is not that a political force like the Muslim Brotherhood can never get a fair shake when involving itself in electoral politics, but that the Morsy government brought about its own downfall by misusing and abusing the institutions of democracy to further its influence and power – and that if U.S. policy had been less tolerant of Morsy’s abuses, then perhaps a complete breakdown of the constitutional order could have been averted.

Heading a democratic government entails enormous responsibilities; you are no longer the head of a political faction, but are supposed to represent an entire nation. Morsy and his followers failed to appreciate that (Chávez and Zelaya never did either), and they have now paid the price. The military’s intervention merely served as a check on an elected government’s abuse of power and growing authoritarianism. What’s left now is for U.S. policy to not only accept that and move on to support the interim government’s return to electoral politics as quickly as is feasible, but to develop more effective strategies that try to avert such crises in the first place.

[Full disclosure: Back in 2009, I helped advise a delegation of private Honduran citizens who came to Washington to defend the constitutionality of President Manuel Zelaya’s removal from power.]

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