In his twice-monthly column for the Ottawa Citizen, as well as Postmedia outlets The Province and the Calgary Herald, MLI’s Brian Lee Crowley discusses Egypt’s first stab at democracy. What are those who believe in democracy and the rule of law to make of the military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi barely a year after his choice as Egypt’s first democratically-elected president? The answer lies in the fact that democracy is about far more than elections, something Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood never grasped. Click here to read Brian’s assessment of the prospects for a democratic future in the world’s most populous Arab country.
Democracy is a harsh taskmaster.
Brian Lee Crowley, OTTAWA CITIZEN, Published July 5th, 2013.
Just ask ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. He has learned democracy is about far more than elections, and why elections do not legitimize undemocratic behaviour.
Morsi’s ouster should, in theory at least, cause genuine democrats some heartburn. He was elected in pretty fair elections a year ago after the Arab Spring that overthrew long-entrenched strongman Hosni Mubarak. Those committed to individual freedom, constitutionalism and the rule of law should be outraged by an unelected army reversing the decision of the Egyptian people a mere year later.
It is on the legitimacy they earned in last year’s election that Morsi’s supporters rely in seeking the moral high ground after the coup. As one Islamist activist expostulated in newspaper reports, “This isn’t about Islam. It is about democracy.”
Elections do confer virtually unassailable legitimacy in genuinely democratic societies. In Egypt, however, almost as soon as he was elected President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters began to behave in egregiously undemocratic ways, threatening the institutional underpinnings of democracy.
How can a leader with a democratic mandate be accused of behaving undemocratically? Doesn’t the mandate of the voters cloak everything in the aura of the people’s decision?
Well, no. The legitimacy conferred by elections is not the root of democracy but the fruit. In societies that have gone through the pain of becoming genuinely democratic, it is clearly understood that democratic mandates confer power within a rather narrow sphere.
In Canada, the federal government, despite its democratic legitimacy, cannot make laws in areas controlled by the provinces, no matter how many people voted for it. The courts are rigorously independent and cheerfully enforce the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on all governments. Minority rights are assiduously consulted and protected. The government of the day may not abolish elections or muzzle the media. We can be quite certain that even decisions governments are entitled to take may be reversed by subsequent governments if the voters repudiate their outgoing rulers at the polls.
In other words, there are things that are outside the reach of mere democratic mandates. We acquiesce in decisions of governments we personally did not vote for not merely because we accept the rule of majority voting. Much more importantly, we accept majority voting because we know that majorities do not confer absolute power.
The dangers posed by rampant abuse of power under the guise of democracy hardly exist here, however much we might like rhetorically to suggest otherwise when governments do things that displease us.
It is of precisely this culture of democratic behaviour that Egypt had no experience. Worse, President Morsi was using his electoral mandate to prevent them from taking root and to entrench the Muslim Brotherhood’s values in all Egyptian institutions. This is the dilemma for democrats outside Egypt inspired by the Arab Spring but increasingly concerned that Islamist politics would nip real democracy in the bud.
Egypt’s first stab at democracy was badly flawed from the start, and for this the military bears much of the blame. There was the usual confusion and disorganization of an emergent democracy, but that was no excuse for premature parliamentary elections, for example, that conferred a huge advantage on a well-organized Muslim Brotherhood.
In the first round of presidential elections, a majority of voters opted for non-Islamist candidates, a clear sign that Egyptians were yearning for an inclusive politics in which the government would govern for all Egyptians. But in the second round voters had only a choice between the Brotherhood’s candidate and a Mubarak regime hack. Even then Morsi eked out only a narrow victory.
He then proceeded to act as if all power flowed from him and his decisions were by definition legitimate solely because he had been elected. His pharaonic pretensions culminated in his decision late last year to make himself absolute ruler, to push through a constitution that stacked the institutional deck in favour of political Islam, and to seek to control the courts and other institutions on whose independence democratic legitimacy also depends. Women’s groups, secularists, minorities such as Coptic Christians and just plain-vanilla democrats rose up in protest. At the same time, the president’s power base was eroded by his economic bumbling that turned a precarious situation into a desperate one for many.
The great fear of democrats is that Islamist rule becomes one person, one vote, one time, as they entrench undemocratic values and behaviours that are then beyond the reach of voters to reverse.
That’s not democracy. Neither is a military coup, of course. Those, unfortunately, were the only choices on offer. It seems on balance that hitting the reset button and trying afresh is the least bad solution — if Egyptians have learned the lessons of the last year.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: macdonaldlaurier.ca.