- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
Long-time observers of Venezuelan politics view the events unfolding halfway across the globe, in Egypt, with more than a bit of déjà vu.
A revolution imposing a constitution and running a sectarian government, prompting a political crisis? Check.
Massive street demonstrations triggering a military ouster of said president, who is immediately placed in custody while his supporters take to the streets? Check.
Venezuela lived through all of this in 2002. And while so far the Egyptian coupsters have succeeded longer than the Venezuelans did, it’s still an open question whether the coup will have actual staying power, and at what cost to the Egyptian people.
In 2002, Hugo Chávez was facing a political crisis of enormous proportions. A sluggish economy had eaten away at his base of support. The approval of a new Constitution — tailor-made to his desires — was seen by many as a sectarian move. The approval of a series of secret decrees that touched everything from the oil sector to land holdings without consulting affected sectors brought panic to boardrooms across the country. And the suggestion of a new education law seeped in leftist ideology sent worried parents out into the streets en masse.
By April of 2002, the crisis had reached a boiling point. Members of the military began openly questioning the president. Throughout the month millions of people marched through the streets of Caracas demanding Chávez resign. A general strike was called.
The crisis came to a head on April 11, when hundreds of thousands of people marched on to the Presidential palace, only to be greeted by snipers of unknown affiliation. A violent, confusing confrontation ensued and nineteen people (from both the opposition and pro-government camps) lay dead.
This prompted the military to act.
Within a few hours, the top brass of the Venezuelan army had removed Chávez and placed him under arrest. The president of the main business federation and leader of the protest movement, Pedro Carmona, was named interim-President, and he quickly moved to dissolve parliament, the courts, and suspend the Constitution. (The best book on the subject is The Silence and the Scorpion, by American author Brian Nelson)
Then, in a development that changed the course of Latin American history, the military backtracked. Seemingly afraid of being in charge of a coup d’etat, facing internal grumblings from dissenting commanders, and unwilling to attack pro-Chávez demonstrators who marched on the streets demanding to know where Chávez was, the coup quickly collapsed. On April 13, two days after being removed, Chávez came back to consolidate his grip on power. Carmona and the generals are now in exile in Colombia. The opposition has never fully recovered from these events.
The parallels with Egypt are striking. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the government of Mohamed Morsy moved to change the Constitution. By all accounts, the new constitution left important sectors of society out in the cold. Demonstrations demanding Morsy’s ouster paved the way for Egypt’s military to depose Morsy and place him under arrest. Thousands of his supporters are now demanding his release, and the result has been unspeakably violent.
Yet, unlike Chávez, it does not appear as though Morsy has any allies in the armed forces. This is a crucial difference that may spell doom for the former Egyptian president. It is also understandable — Chávez, after all, came from the military, and his deep knowledge of the institution along with the friendships cultivated there proved a daunting challenge for Venezuela’s plotting generals.
Furthermore, Venezuela’s generals were unwilling to go all the way with their coup.
When Chile’s Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, he promptly unleashed a wave of terror that overwhelmed Allende’s backers. The swiftness and the unabashed violence of his campaign helped consolidate his grip on power. Venezuela’s generals did nothing of the sort, and their power quickly dissolved.
If Egypt’s generals begin to feel remorse for the violence in the streets, if they begin losing allies, or if they face internal conflict, with sectors of the armed forces thinking twice about what they have done, the coup could very well collapse. Failing to quash dissent will only embolden the poor masses at the heart of Morsy’s movement, just like the chavista masses were emboldened after seeing Chávez’s detractors squabbling. This could pave the way for Morsy’s return amidst a popular wave of support, no matter what the middle-class crowds in Tahrir Square think.
There is a popular saying in Venezuela: doing something and not finishing the task is like "killing a tiger and being afraid of its dead skin."
Venezuela’s generals overthrew a president and immediately began regretting it. If Egypt’s generals blink, the same could happen there. But if they tighten their grip, blood will continue being spilled, and the hopes for an open, democratic Egypt will be quashed.
Either way, it’s a tragedy for all Egyptians…just like 2002 was a tragedy for all Venezuelans.