Two Faces of International Power: Fiji and Egypt
By Scott MacWilliam
In July 2013, a military regime overthrew and imprisoned an elected Prime Minister and government, jailing as well as killing regime supporters. The US, Australian and New Zealand governments have done little more than warn their citizens about the possible dangers of travelling to that country as the protests against army rule escalate. The Australian Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr, a USA-phile and most suitable deputy sheriff has been conspicuously silent about a democratically-elected government being overthrown in a coup.
Foreign aid has continued from the USA, including military aid despite ostensible bans against such assistance: a get-out clause in the relevant legislation has been invoked to permit the continuing provision of arms and other aid. No travel bans have been put in place against any of the coup-makers or the new regime’s top officials, even as the death toll among civilian protesters rises. IMF officials are now more willing to advance a massive, previously delayed dollar loan to assist rebuild the country’s fragile economy.
On December 5, 2006, in another country Fiji, a military regime overthrew an elected Prime Minister and government. For that coup the international response was and remains quite different, a difference examined here. The responses to events in Egypt and Fiji will immediately raise the question of how to explain the actions of particular `western’ governments: hypocrisy, or two faces of liberal democratic power?
The first step in constructing an explanation is a rejection of the romantic idea that military action is incompatible with liberal representative democracy. A useful starting point is the recognition that in both Egypt and Fiji, the elections which preceded the coups as well as the governments which were subsequently deposed were military-supervised and backed. Prior to the 2001 election in Fiji military commander, now PM Frank Bainimarama publicly stated that only the SDL leader Laisenia Qarase would be acceptable as PM. Qarase had himself been installed by the military before the election as the least worse option compared to the initial candidate proposed by the nationalist insurgents who had taken over parliament the previous year. There would be no return to the previously elected FLP Mahendra Chaudhry - led Peoples Coalition government, an outcome also favoured by foreign governments.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood - led government formed after the 2011 elections which followed the ousting of long-term dictator Hosni Mubarak also received initial military support. This was even though the party won a near-majority of seats with only slightly more than 30 per cent of the 60 per cent of the eligible electorate who voted. That is, the government had simple majority support not absolute. What followed the Egyptian parliamentary elections and the presidential election in the following year was a government which sought to implement a political platform that was sectarian.
The parallels with the post-election behaviour of the Qarase government deserve consideration. In Egypt, the government headed after the presidential elections by the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi took an Islamist route, whereas in Fiji the Qarase government was suffused with nationalist indigenous zeal, leavened by Methodism and intolerance to other religions.
In both cases the military withdrew its earlier hesitant support, and toppled the elected government promising fresh elections under revised rules, forms of constitutional reform. However for Fiji international condemnation of the 2006 coup was immediate: it took just one day for Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and the Department of Foreign Affairs to impose sanctions aimed at the restoration of the Qarase government and `returning the military to the barracks’. These sanctions were retained by the Kevin-Rudd led ALP government which won the 2007 elections and re-confirmed by the subsequent Gillard ALP -led coalition government. The increase in Australian aid since 2006 has been matched by deliberate attempts to ensure that the Fijian government’s support throughout the region remains limited.
It is tempting to describe the differing behaviours of the three foreign governments to mere hypocrisy, what has been described as `the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have’. However there is far more at work here. The differences between the official government responses to the two coups are so striking that it is worth asking if and what do events in Egypt suggest about the behaviour of ANZ governments to the coup and subsequent military takeover in Fiji. In other words why the appearance of hypocrisy, democracy for Fijians but not for Egyptians, and what does this appearance screen?
While the Egyptian military’s under-pinning of all governments in that country has some similarities with the military’s role in post-Independence Fiji, there is at least one major difference. Successive US governments have bolstered the Egyptian military, and thus a dictator such as Mubarak, because of that country’s crucial role in the region. Access to oil supplies provides a major component of the US and western European foreign policy position, with the fear of radical Islam of increasing importance. For Egypt , US foreign policy has hewed to the well-established line: `we don’t care if there is a dictatorship as long as it is our dictator’.
The only comparable role which the Fijian military has played is in providing peace-keeping support, much of it in that same `Middle East’ region. However for Fiji, not strategically significant though becoming more so as the consequence of a growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific, liberal democratic governments have shown the always present other policy face, that concerned with imposing representative democracy no matter how thin or shallow. This face suits ANZ governments in particular because of close ties with the people and commercial concerns reduced in importance by the Bainimarama government. Re-installing these particular interests under the banner of bringing economic growth and political stability is, in the eyes of those who hold political power in ANZ, best served in Fiji by representative democracy.
Despite all the defects of the 1997 constitution, with its unelected president, upper house of parliament and Great Council of Chiefs, malapportioned electorates, institutionalised racist identification with citizenship, this remains the bedrock of what ANZ governments see as the appropriate democratic form for Fiji. In Egypt, however, democratic form is unimportant for the USA and ANZ governments: military power which can bring order, however temporary, is preferable and the flow of international funds can occur.
Which of the two faces will be foremost after the next elections in each country will, of course, be largely irrelevant for the bulk of the people whose impoverishment has been and continues to be a major feature of life in both countries. For the reductions in living standards have been much longer term in Egypt and in Fiji, with Ratu Mara noting in 1994 the extent of unemployment and impoverishment particularly among the young. Indeed what is more and more apparent is that neither representative democracy nor military dictatorship has a direct causal connection with improvement in living standards. The two faces of international power serve other objectives.