28 June 2013

Democracy in Egypt: will we know it when we see it?

A volatile weekend is expected in Egypt as opponents of President Morsi gather throughout the country to call for his resignation or, at the least, early elections to bring in a new government, while the president's supporters plan demonstrations of their own and vow not to give in to a malcontent minority. The comment thread on the Guardian newspaper's Egypt coverage makes interesting reading as participants, Egyptians and outsiders alike, opine on what democracy should mean. For Morsi's supporters, the meaning is obvious: their man won a fair election and has a right to rule until the next one. His opponents argue that democracy is more than voting. They contend that mass protests are necessary to keep elected leaders accountable to the people. They have sympathizers in the west, of course, where Morsi's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood make him suspect. Millions of Egyptians have their own reasons to distrust or simply disapprove of Morsi, but the man does have a mandate, and electoral democracy depends on extending elected leaders some benefit of the doubt during their terms in office. Arguably, Egypt is still in a revolutionary state, and many Egyptians still feel entitled by those circumstances to withhold the deference to elections taken for granted in stable democracies, especially when they suspect Morsi of seeking to betray democracy at his first opportunity.

Suspicion of power is typical at times of nation building; you see it throughout the debates over the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Egyptian case is exacerbated by a partisanship that did not yet exist when the American Framers drafted their constitution. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would become partisan rivals later, but at the Philadelphia convention and as co-authors of the Federalist Papers they were allies in framing what they considered an effective and accountable government. It seems unlikely that their ideological disagreements only became obvious to them later; instead, we can assume that Madison and Hamilton were motivated by something more than personal advantage. We can also assume, despite the heated rhetoric during the ratification debates and afterward, that the Framers, be they Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Hamiltonians or Madisonians, did not see their experiment in republican government as an all-or-nothing game. Whatever they might have said publicly, neither man assumed that the other would make himself a dictator, while both could regard George Washington as above the fray, though Madison began to have his doubts.

In Egypt, it can be argued at the same time that Morsi has not earned the trust a republic requires, and that an equally necessary degree of trust has not been extended to him. The problem may be that what happened in Egypt has been less of a revolution than a simple revolt against an individual, Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians may have agreed on very little apart from their desire to be rid of Mubarak, but there may need to be more positive agreement on ends and means for a revolution to have real results. The real need is for some sort of unity of identity, if not of purpose, that an already-polarized Egypt seems incapable of at the moment. Egyptians don't need to have a totalitarian moment, unless you think the U.S. had a totalitarian moment in 1787. What Hamilton and Madison shared was a belief that everyone -- or at least everyone involved in the process -- would benefit from the constitution they created. Egyptians shouldn't have to copy the U.S. Constitution to get a result similarly satisfactory to everyone. But if there are elements in Egypt, either among the Brotherhood or in the opposition, who simply can't accept the idea or sharing or taking turns in power, then we can expect the mass demonstrations to continue, since the revolution won't be over yet.


Anonymous said...

Democracy in Egypt will be no different than here. Well, a little. Rather than "which flavor of neo-con imperialism do you prefer to submit to", it will be "which interpretation of the koran do you prefer to submit to"? 6 of 1, half-dozen of the other.
None of them are progressive; none of them are truly controlled by the population, rather than controlling the population.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, if control were totally in the hands of the masses, you'd just end up with "Idiocracy".