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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Making Egypt More Democratic: Interiorizing Protests

How a democratic system is designed can be as important as whether the government officials have been elected or appointed. In constructing a democracy, it is not sufficient to simply hold elections. While the victors may have democratic legitimacy, the government itself may still not. Egypt amid the violent protests in early 2013 may be a case in point. Even though unlike in 2012 the sitting president had been democratically elected, it is too simplistic to say that the Egyptian government and constitution had democratic legitimacy.
In January 2013 following an Egyptian court sentencing 21 residents in Port Said to death for their roles in the stadium disaster, the chief of the army said that the ongoing violence could bring about the collapse of Morsi’s government. The opposition demanded that the president establish a nationally unified government and rewrite controversial parts of the constitution that had recently been passed. That the constitution had been pushed by religionists amid an increasingly polarized citizenry left even the democratically elected government vulnerable. It was not enough that Morsi had been democratically elected.
Particularly in a highly polarized country, simply holding elections is not sufficient to usher in a sustainable democracy. If a partisan party holds virtually all of the power in the government of a highly polarized country, the opposition will have no recourse but to resort to protests and even violence. Put another way, democratic legitimacy requires more where a citizenry is polarized in the sense of operating under very different, and thus highly conflicting, assumptions and prescriptions. In such a context, a democratic system that hands virtually all the power over to one “side” is insufficiently democratic.
This is not to say that a “unity government” is the answer. Given the polarization, any unity would be illusory. More realistically, Morsi could have viewed the sheer intensity of the violence in the protests as an indication that the new democratic system was being monopolized by one party at the expense of others. Providing them with their own bases of power within the government and democratically elected would bring in the external political strife—replacing violence on the streets with debate and negotiation between governmental institutions. The latter is not predicated on unity. Even any resulting compromise in legislative terms would not necessarily imply unity.

                                    Can such intense violence be "interiorized" as debate and politics in a legislature?  Government itself can be viewed as civic violence "redacted" and "refined."   Source: thestar.com
Interiorizing the conflict on the streets by permitting it with some political power within the government could be accomplished through a bicameral legislature, the chambers of which having very different bases of membership, or a qualified majority vote mechanism in a single chamber. The separation of powers could also be by government branch, with one party controlling one branch and the opposition controlling at least part of another branch.
In the U.S., for example, a Democrat controlled the White House at the time, while the Republicans controlled the U.S. House. The opposition did not have to have a share of the power in the House because the minority there had another power base within the government. Were the government completely dominated by even democratically elected Republicans, such was the case in Wisconsin after the election of 2010, activist Democrats would head for the streets. That the legitimacy of such a government can quickly become suspect in spite of its democratic basis is illustrated by the thirteen senators from Wisconsin who literally fled to Illinois so Wisconsin’s senate could not function with a quorum. Democracy involves the design of a government as much as that crucial offices are elected rather than appointed. To be legitimate democratically, the government’s design should interiorize political strife by providing a power base to more than one party.
In short, it is not sufficient for the Egyptian president and even its parliament to be democratically elected, such that one party can dominate both simply due to the numbers. Given the extent of polarization among the citizenry, such domination is doomed to failure even if the dominated party is in no hurry to differentiate power-bases within the government. Particularly in cases such as Egypt where the parties are “not on the same page,” the opposition must have some basis within the government to act as a check and thus balance out the otherwise excess possible in one-party rule. In a polarized citizenry, such excess quickly pushes the other side to extreme reactions on the street.
The task in the construction of a viable government in Egypt would seem to be providing opposition groups with enough ownership within the government without thereby providing a veto on any legislative output. As of early 2013 at least, Egypt might have to go a couple of rounds before a design is adopted that effectively interiorizes the violence.  Otherwise, splitting the country into two—one secular and the other a theocracy—might be the only viable solution (other than federalism and the sort of democratic design discussed here).  It is notoriously difficult to relocate people, however, so as to have truly distinct secular and religionist societies. Given the daylight between the two camps, however, partition, such as that which had occurred between Pakistan and India in 1947 might simply reflect the fact that two distinct nations had already come to exist in Egypt. If so, it is the fossilized nature of a defined country that may be the underlying obstacle to Egypt catching up with itself.

Egypt Political Factions Condemn Violence, Urge Dialogue,” Deutsche Welle, January 31, 2013.