Protests and democracy in Egypt

Opinion by Shelley Xu
Aug. 11, 2013, 4:12 p.m.

I would like to think that elementary school taught me correctly: that democracy was the best form of government, that good citizenship necessitated voting when we turned eighteen and beyond, and that we as citizens had an obligation to keep ourselves informed of domestic and international happenings. Not difficult, an uncomplicated recipe for a meaningful civil life. Yet the past few years, the experience of the Arab Spring and, most prominently, the situation in Egypt, have demonstrated otherwise.

When on June 30, millions of people took to the streets of Egypt, demanding ex-President Mohammed Morsi’s resignation, my preconceptions and prior beliefs were irreparably shattered. Functioning democracy is incredibly complex, and sometimes violently so.

Estimates suggest that several million people mobilized against Morsi (with one estimate citing 14 million people in the streets, and 22 million signing a petition calling for new elections). These numbers are powerful. If the entire population of New York City and the whole viewership of The Bachelor rose up in protest, they would still be outnumbered by the Egyptian showing. Morsi was subsequently forcibly removed from power by an army that claimed it was adhering to society’s wishes.

These protests stand in stark contrast to a year ago, when the same Morsi won the presidential election with 51.73 percent (13 million votes) of the voting electorate.

The protests are a slap in the face of the legitimacy of past elections, of future elections and of ruling regimes. If a sufficient number of people can be galvanized to decry the efficacy and legitimacy of first an autocracy under Mubarak, and then a democratically-elected government under Morsi, then there is precedent to call out the next government. Whims have the power to topple presidents, and social discontent transmogrifies from a tool to amend laws to one to break the rule of law. In such conditions, democratic governance is impossible.

Most frighteningly, however, is the military’s involvement in Egyptian politics. While it is a well-respected institution, and has promised for a return to civilian-led government in six months, I’ve gained a healthy wariness of the military.

This summer, I worked for the National Endowment for Democracy, where I studied cases of democratic transition—in particular, Chile. Augusto Pinochet served as commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, led the coup d’état that toppled one of Latin America’s strongest democracies and ruled for 16 years.

While not a perfect comparison, Chile’s case in 1973 is similar to Egypt’s, forty years later. A radical government had taken power, and after a public outpouring of discontent (though not to the same extent as Egypt), the military stepped in and took control of the situation. Chile progressed through what Pinochet called a “protected democracy.” Political parties were abolished, civil society systematically dismantled and human rights violated. Only after a massive campaign by the opposition, intense international scrutiny and a constitutionally mandated plebiscite did Pinochet relinquish power.

These words do not serve to condemn Egyptians, who are rightfully clamoring for a truly representative and legitimate government. But it does set a dangerous precedent. Egypt’s conflict embodies a fundamental tension with democracy. At its heart, democratic governance means legitimizing a system whereby the majority gets to rule while respecting minority rights. In return, the ruling entities must accept that the reverse may be true after the next election. Recent developments in Egypt have thrown this definition awry, for Egyptians did not wait for the next set of elections to impress legitimacy on their discontent.

Reconciling the democratic mandates of majority rule and orderly transitions is necessary to truly forge a representative and legitimate government, respectively. It means doing more than attempts at compromise and flirtations with the opposition, though. It means a deep respect for what an opposition party or group stands for—both during an election, and after it.

I wish I could say that there would be a happy ending if credible and legitimate elections were held again, or if the Muslim Brotherhood realized the follies of using an electoral mandate to impose their own view of an Islamist society on a country home to many secularists. However, when the lines of legitimacy are so blurred, and the lines of sectarian divisions are drawn so harshly, any outcome is fair game.

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