Dramatic Birth Pangs of Democracy in Egypt

By Mohamed El Mokhtar

A noted Mauritanian jurist and diplomat, Abdellahi Ould Kebd, once contended that democracy is first and foremost an acknowledgment and an acceptance of peaceful confrontation as means of settling disputes within the collectivity. However, its institutionalization cannot take place without a general consensus as to the rules of the game. That primordial consensus seems to be the missing piece in the fledgling Egyptian institutional edifice.

Popular discontent and incompetence may very well erode legitimacy but, unlike fraud and outright rigging, they should not legally vitiate an electoral process or the legality of a democratically established institution.

Morsi may have many flaws, and he might have committed awful blunders but he was, nevertheless, freely elected and therefore should retain his elected office as the indisputable and legitimate president of Egypt until this is decided otherwise in free and fair elections or referendum. Only via the democratic mechanism can the collective will of the people be efficiently assessed and expressed. Any outcome short of that would amount to an usurpation of power by unconstitutional means.

Massive demonstrations are not to be viewed as the legal way by which an elected leadership should be challenged or toppled. It is all the more so when parallel demonstrations can be initiated, on a similar or greater scale, by the opposite side. Therefore, instigating a popular uprising, or rebellion, against an elected leader is, in many respects, a double-edged sword.

Furthermore, the army is not the legal repository of the people’s trust or collective will. Thus, it does not fall within its legal purview to forcibly remove an elected government notwithstanding the latter’s limitations. The poor performance or political failures of a leadership do not systematically warrant its overthrow.

Outside the mechanism of regular elections, a legitimate ruler can be legally unseated only by representatives of the people pursuant to the constitutional rules that determine the conditions of legal destitution. Anyone claiming  to be a democrat or respectful of the principles of liberal democracy is bound  by this fundamental principle. Politicians who fail to abide by it will, sooner or later, fall prey themselves to the shallowness of heir undemocratic behavior.

Indeed, I find it very ironic when self-proclaimed secular democrats such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate  Mohamed El Baradei try to rationalize a coup d’état against a democratically elected leadership.

In any democracy when the quorum constitutionally required for the legal impeachment of a ruler cannot be reached, the people have no choice but to put up with the vagaries of his or her leadership until the end of its legal mandate unless s/he willingly leaves office. Democracy is not a perfect system but it works a lot better when people are giving a chance to learn from their mistakes and inappropriate choices.

Instead of wasting their time arguing over the framing, not the substance, of an Islamic concept, or whether a woman or a Copt, could be legally eligible for the presidency, Egyptian constituent assembly members should have instead focused on restricting the role of the army to protecting the country from external threats and defending its territorial integrity. Any constitution that does not clearly restrict the role of the army in politics by placing it squarely, without any exception, under the direct control of elected civilian bodies inevitably carries the seeds of military meddling and thus tyranny.

It is perfectly reasonable to criticize or oppose Morsi but to invite the very army that has already proven its failure, in ruling the country, is indicative of one thing: the bankruptcy of the Egyptian political class. In fact, the failure of Arab political elites, including Islamists, to reconcile themselves with the basic fundamentals of democracy speaks to the backwardness of our political mores and immaturity of our intelligentsias. The political flimsiness of the leaders of The National Salvation Front is a here case in point even though the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) far from being a paragon of democracy.

In fact, from the outset, MB leadership has proven not to be enough cooperative and inclusive. However, its first imprudence was the attempt to woo the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at the expense of the secular revolutionary forces. Thus, their complacency toward the SCAF during the first weeks of the revolution alienated a sizable segment of the revolutionary youth. This turned out to have been a poorly conceived move on their part. Consequently, their failure to make significant concessions to the demands of the opposition, in particular those pertaining to the provisions of the new constitution, revealed a deplorable lack of political acumen.

This mindset is, firstly, an expression of the old guard’s deep conservatism and suspicion of its political competitors. It also indicates the strength of its grip on the movement — an ideological rigidity which explains the dissent of former MB figures like Abdel Monein Abdul Fotouf and the burgeoning of softer, and more pragmatic, offshoots of the mother movement such as Al Wasat Party, Strong Egypt Party etc.

The consistent resistance of the movement to reform explains to a certain extent their isolation from those segments of society still apprehensive of the very idea of mixing religion and politics. It denotes also their lack of consensus building skills so critical in the art of politics.

They clumsily alienated, from the beginning, the very political allies they needed so badly in order to sideline the power brokers and the military elite so resistant to change. Worse still, they inadvertently pushed the well intentioned revolutionary youth into the arms of the opportunistic politicians who are now conspicuously flirting with the military.

These same politicians were more or less discreetly helped in their efforts to sabotage the democratic experiment by freedom-averse right-wing sheikdoms like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.  The immediate injection of billions of dollars, after the coup d’état against Morsi, into the Egyptian economy by the autocratic Gulf states is clear evidence of their pervasive complicity with Morsi’s adversaries.

In the same vein, it appears that the Tamarod movement (whose name translates loosely as “rebellion”) was secretly backed by billionaire Naguib Sawiri. Hence, the fuel shortages and blackouts that caused many Egyptians to revolt, which mysteriously disappeared right after the coup, were, in reality, artificially created.

As the New York Times notes [July 10, 2013]:

Working behind the scenes, members of the old establishment, some of them close to Mr. Mubarak and the country’s top generals, also helped finance, advise and organize those determined to topple the Islamist leadership, including Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire and an outspoken foe of the Brotherhood; Tahani El-Gebali, a former judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court who is close to the ruling generals; and Shawki al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, who lost the presidential race to Mr. Morsi.

The billionaire Naguib Sawiris’ efforts concur with the same aim of undermining, by all means possible, the presidency of Morsi whom he recently unashamedly characterized as a fascist on the Charlie Rose TV program. For a multibillionaire, who owes the bulk of his wealth to the system of inequity and favoritism characteristic of the old regime, to dare calling an elected president a fascist denotes the height of arrogance. moral irresponsibility and ignorance.

It reveals, at the very least, an utter disdain for his fellow Copts who are, like many Egyptians, not only economically destitute but, worse still, the most socially vulnerable to the vagaries of sectarianism and communal violence.

An article by Claire Talon, published in Le Monde on 8 July, was one of the first to suggest the hypothesis of a military coup prepared in advance. “The removal of Egyptian President was decided by the military on 23 June,” said the correspondent in Cairo, based on several sources from the Muslim Brotherhood, the military and intelligence. She reported the recording of a dialogue between the army chief, General Fattah Al-Sissi and Mohamed Morsi, July 2 (revealed by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Watan , July 5). The defense minister said that the president should resign.

“- And if I refuse?

– It’s already done, it no longer depends on you. Go with dignity (…) You do not have any legitimacy. ”

Evidence that the “popular uprising” that led to Morsi’s ouster was essentially ginned up by Egypt’s old corrupt establishment is the security mayhem, source of so much frustration and anger for many Egyptians. The police forces that were visibly absent when the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were ransacked, in many localities, miraculously reappeared to protect anti-Morsi demonstrators while, at the same time, harshly repressing his supporters.

If the removal of president Morsi wasn’t a coup d’état why then arrest him and countless MB officials while banning their official media networks? This blatant violation of their human rights (freedom of movement and expression) is taking place at a time when their opponents are allowed to air the most irrational rhetoric against the movement and its members.

This multi-pronged, internal and external conspiracy, combined with the political amateurism and inexperience of Morsi, made it extremely difficult for the new legislature and government to work efficiently and without hindrances.

In fact, the state apparatus — the media, the judiciary, the police, the upper echelon of the army — was swarming with hostile vestiges of the old regime, or Folul, bent on sabotaging the new regime regardless of its ideological outlook or economic performance.

Given the enormity of the challenges facing post-revolutionary Egypt, it would have been more prudent on the part of the MB not to field a candidate to run for the presidency at this critical transitional juncture. The movement could have simply endorsed the candidacy of Abdel Moneim Abdel Fotouf or any other alternative candidate close to its ideological camp.

However instead of privileging caution, the MB rushed into the presidential elections without careful assessment of its overall strategic implications. This was a major blunder to the extent that it was a big miscalculation. It seems as though the cadre of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), or the political wing of the movement, was operating more within the conceptual framework of the ideological struggle with its political competitors, not paying enough attention to the major hurdle on the road to freedom: The pervasiveness of the role of the military in politics.

Thus, too much precious time was wasted on negotiations related to formal constitutional details that could have been conceded, without much damage, for the sake of a much-needed broader national political compromise, especially insomuch as a constitutional document, like democracy itself, is a work in progress and thus can always be amended when the right conditions are met.

This much is certain, without a clear consensus on the rules of the game from the beginning, there can be no solid foundation for a functioning institutional democracy. The MB and their Islamist allies, or in the words of noted Middle East expert and policy analyst Hussein Ibish “the religious right,” could have waited until the context was ripe to initiate, with the consent of the governed not against their will,  the social change they deemed important to the implementation of their grand vision.

After all, the Islamic ideal, so much touted, is primarily premised upon the realization of social equity and justice, not the monopole of power and exclusion of political opponents. If one lesson can be inferred from the shortcoming of the MB it is undoubtedly the following: In politics putting the horse before the cart is a dangerous and risky misstep.

Having said that, if a sizable mass of Arab citizens continue to freely vote for inherently undemocratic Islamists, the expression of their collective political will must be respected.

It is very peculiar on the part of presumably liberal secular elites not only to ally themselves with failed military tyrants, but to do so with the intention of denying the population its democratically elected political leaders. It is both elitist and undemocratic, and all the more so when it is done under the specific and fallacious pretext of supposedly protecting democracy.

The bottom-line is that people’s collective will must be respected, regardless of the ultimate outcome. However, one needs not to forget that democracy is not just about majoritarianism, or the primacy of the voice of the majority. Democracy is, first and foremost, a question of compromise and consensus. If majoritarianism can be used as a means of dismantling the democratic edifice, consensus remains, nonetheless, the most important pillar of the whole democratic edifice.

The MB seems not to have integrated this latter dimension of the democratic process into their political ethos, much less Hizb Al-Nour whose conspicuous betrayal of its Islamic allies speaks to the true nature of its political opportunism; and so does the Machiavellian philosophy of their common secular ideological nemesis:  The so called liberal-minded El Baradei.

– Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a social analyst and political commentator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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  1. Well- said! It’s really ironic that liberals who were against military in 2011 are supporting it now.

    I am starting to believe that any system that would bring Islamists to office will be turned upside down under any premises.

    • “Only via the democratic mechanism can the collective will of the people be efficiently assessed and expressed.”
      This point is central to the political analysis of Morsi’s ousting and represents the constitutionalists’ inability to grasp revolutionary actions. The revolution cannot be assessed “efficiently” or “constitutionally”. The people’s revolution necessitated a government that would take the revolution forward and begin to develop a society which would value, extend and protect freedoms and well-being. Instead, Morsi saw the election as permission to be a counter- revolutionary dictatorship. He had to go or the revolution would be betrayed.

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