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Monday, July 8, 2013

Democracy or Force: The Case of Egypt

In early July 2013, the world was treated to a glimpse of the stark dichotomy punctuated by democracy and civic violence.  Middle-ground is slight to nil between the two, as reflected in the swift taking of sides in the immediate aftermath of the coup by the Egyptian army. Just days after the coup, 51 pro-Morsi protesters and three soldiers were killed, provoking fears of outright civil war.[1] In spite of a top Egyptian cleric going into seclusion to pressure both sides to reconcile, the dramatic snap from democracy to force could not easily be undone. With leaders of Morsi’s party calling for outright rebellion, the military-installed “technocrat” inter-regnum government was on tenuous ground. For when the order that democracy can provide by interiorizing civic discord within the contours of a political process and institutions is tossed away like a dirty rag, a society is left with the instability of force.

Democracy is admittedly far from perfect as a form of governance. Bringing in diverging political interests to legislate together civilizes but does not expunge ideological, financial and personal conflicts. It is difficult to determine the limits of a majority party’s authority and the extent of a minority’s rights. Whereas the filibuster in the U.S. Senate may give the minority party so much authority that the legislative chamber can be vexed into stultifying stagnation, Morsi’s party was deficient in allowing for sufficient  minority participation not only in legislating, but also in drafting the constitution. No wonder the military had scant respect for the document in summarily suspending it during the coup.

The Egyptian experiment with democracy was admittedly quite flawed. Just before the coup, Morsi admitted that he had made mistakes in this regard. Making basic law to serve the interests of a political party is not democratic, and yet democratic elections legitimated Morsi as Egypt’s president. In contrast, the coup was not at all democratic, and thus the military was left to count on the power rather than legitimacy of force. A threshold had been crossed, a net breached.

Yet the picture is not as black and white as I am suggesting. In requiring that all significant political forces participate in writing a new constitution, the military may have laid the groundwork for a sustainable rather than compromised democracy. Rising above his grievances on behalf of Egypt’s future, Morsi would have been wise in announcing that he would participate but not dominate in a constitutional convention. Aware of his mistakes while in office, he could proffer advice to the convention on avoiding certain pitfalls, among which is that of a minority party effectively ruling thanks to the splintering of parties in a parliamentary system. To be legitimate democratically, a majority coalition of parties must be broad enough to represent more than a minority sectional group in society. 

In short, designing a democratic system is far from easy. Allowing one or two parties to dominate the writing and ratification of a constitution risks a less than fully legitimate product.  Egypt’s military was left with the compromised dichotomy between a deeply-flawed “democracy” and force.  Had the democratic system been solid, the hit to democracy itself would have been much worse simply in the ease with which the coup could take place. It is not as though a coup against a viable democracy has never occurred in world history. Even though Egypt’s case is more nuanced, the military crossed a dire threshold in removing a democratically-elected president. From a democratic standpoint, that act is hard to swallow. If the biased constitution will have been fixed following an electoral change in a future election, the military’s decision to oust Morsi was particularly hasty and short-sighted from the standpoint of not only democracy, but civic order itself.

After all, most of the delegates in the American constitutional convention in 1787 were well-off, and thus creditors. In the aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts the year before by soldier debtors who had not been paid by the continental army and yet faced unyielding creditors, the bias in the convention was significant at the time. Also, federalists so dominated anti-federalists that the states were not even permitted to return suggested improvements to another session of the convention. The outcome has been as one might have been able to predict even then: the “General Government,” now known as the federal government, has encroaches so on the authority of the state governments that the checks and balances in federalism itself can barely hold back the Congress.

As flawed as the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution was, the amendment process has offered significant relief to minority interests and thus can be judged to be much better than a coup. Not the least in importance, going with a flawed design enabled democratic norms and values to take root in the United States. With the Egyptian military hastily pulling up democracy as if it were a young, loosely-rooted plant, Egyptians not only had to start from scratch; they also had to contend with the fact that a democratic system had been so easily replaced by force.  

See the video made to accompany this essay: http://youtu.be/_1yuvnOq5YE
See a related video on Syria: From Protest to War  http://youtu.be/NJm3ZaamhgA

[1] Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Urges Followers to Rise Up after Deadly Clashes,” The Huffington Post, July 8, 2013.

Comparing the E.U. and U.S. in a Different Way

 The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

My related very brief talk: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thewordenreport/2013/07/08/the-eu-and-us