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David Brooks' Unconvincing Coup Defense

David Brooks's attempt to defend the coup in Egypt suffers from several large flaws, the first being his premise:

The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.

Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.

Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.

Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.

Brooks sides with the second group, but his description of the first group is unfairly simplistic. Maybe there are some people out there who only care about process, and certainly discussions of democracy can be overly focused on elections, rather than things like a free press, an active civil society, rights for minorities, and so on. But the reason people care about process is because they assume that process is a necessary step towards substance. Process for the sake of process is not a goal I have heard anyone lay out. Brooks sort of acknowledges this when he states that the process folks believe governing will make organizations like the Brotherhood more moderate, but that's only a small part of the process argument. The point of the argument is that there is a necessity in regularizing elections, making sure people are adapted to civilian rule, and forcing citizens to settle disputes at the ballot box. Does Brooks doubt this?

He continues:

It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government.

Erdogan is not anyone's idea of a good democrat, but to lump him in with Hamas and the Ayatollahs is absurd. (Does he think Turkey was governed much better in the twentieth century than it is now? He should talk to the Kurds.) And anyway, the point isn't that the Brotherhood is good at governing. The point is that military dictatorships are not good at governing, either. Those commentators upset about the coup are not pining away for the Brotherhood's leadership; rather, they recognize that the military has degraded Egyptian society for decades, and they think that, at some point, military rule must cease.

Brooks ends his piece by saying radical Islam is the greatest threat to world peace, which may or may not be true, but I don't think former president Morsi is the greatest threat to world peace, and neither is Erdogan. A bigger threat comes from the numerous countries that have been set back decades by military rule--countries where the economy is controlled by the armed forces, and where the military budget is not debated. Egypt falls under this category, as do many other nations. And the long-term consequences scare me more than Erdogan or Morsi.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.