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Egypt: what happens when ‘the people’ get it wrong

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

As coups go, the military takeover of the Egyptian government was spectacularly popular. The generals in charge claimed to be executing the “will of the people” and, given the millions that turned out to demand Morsi’s ouster, it is hard to disagree. Unfortunately, the people don’t always make the best decisions.

Most of the world is governed, at least in theory, by the will of the people. This is, after all, the foundation of democracy: that we get to choose our own representatives. That we get a say in how our countries are run.

Of course, who or what the people are has always been a flexible concept. In Ancient Athens, which is where we get democracy from, you had to be an adult male citizen in order to participate – no women, no foreigners, no slaves were allowed to vote. And until the last century, most major democracies continued to define “the people” in a way that excluded most of them: Britain only allowed women to vote in 1918, and the USA in 1920.

However you define them, the people don’t always make the best decisions. Adolf Hitler had an ostensibly democratic mandate, as did the National Party in South Africa. Some might argue that the overwhelming electoral dominance of the ANC is further evidence that the people don’t always know what they are doing.

Democracy is not foolproof, because the will of the people can’t always be trusted to get it right.

This is a lesson that Egypt is about to learn. Over the past two years, the people of Egypt have spoken on several different occasions. I was in Tahrir Square the first time, in 2011, and it was an awe-inspiring sight. A million people crammed into a public space is not something you get to see very often and I was struck by the diversity of their backgrounds. There were fit young men, old ladies in wheelchairs and babies in prams; there were students, civil servants and professionals; there were Islamists, Christians and liberals. This was a genuinely representative movement and they wanted one thing: Mubarak out. They got it.

A little over a year later, the people spoke again, this time in a more familiar expression. For the first time in independent Egypt’s history, a presidential election was held in which the result was not predetermined. Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – through its proxy, the Freedom and Justice Party – won a slim majority. This made sense.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist group, sure, but then Egypt is a Muslim country where the term “Islamist” is not the dirty word it has become in the west. And in the dark days of the Mubarak regime, decades before Egyptians figured out the power of the mass movement, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only viable opposition – and, for many, a source of basic services such as health and education. There was a sense that, although much of Egypt didn’t want an Islamic state or the imposition of Sharia law, the Muslim Brotherhood had earned their time at the top.

But the Muslim Brotherhood squandered their opportunity to forge a new state from the ruins of the old. It was never going to be an easy job, but many Egyptians were taken aback with just how quickly the new government adopted Mubarak’s authoritarian approach, refusing to compromise and using their slim parliamentary majority to ram through their own laws and constitution.

This should not have come as a huge surprise. These were men and women (mostly men) who knew nothing other than the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak – and before him Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat. But Egyptians outside of the Brotherhood’s considerable support base were entitled to be disappointed: Morsi had promised to create a state for all Egyptians, and in this he failed. In fact, it didn’t even look as if he was trying.

Realising they got it wrong with Morsi, the people spoke again, even if it meant contradicting themselves. Less than a week ago, on Sunday, millions descended on Tahrir Square and in cities and towns across the country, in protests that were even bigger than the ones that toppled Mubarak. Morsi must go, they cried, even though plenty of them must have voted for him. Sure enough, he did. Pushed, just like Mubarak, by a military that maintains “it is out of politics”. Egypt, now, is back to square one: no government, no constitution, no elected representatives.

It is hard not to wonder if the people got it wrong again. A hard-hitting editorial in The Guardian expressed this sentiment best:

“What took shape last night was more fundamental than any of the conflicts that led to it. To dispose of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, to disenfranchise all those who participated in the free elections for the presidency and the parliament and the referendum for the constitution, is another matter entirely.

“Each of these nascent institutions were castigated by foreign governments and human rights groups for falling below international standards. Mr Morsi was given lectures about how democracy is more than just the ballot box. But which standard is more important than the one which decrees that transfers of power can only be enacted peacefully and through the ballot box? That has just been trashed.”

The Guardian blames the military, along with elements of the old regime, for this comprehensive trashing of Egypt’s budding democracy. This is valid, but is not the full picture. For, like it or not, the generals that authorised the toppling of President Morsi could only do so because of the millions that demanded his ouster. General Abdul Fattah Sisi first warned Morsi to respond to “the will of the people”; and then, on national TV, explained that Morsi had been removed because he “did not meet the demands of the masses”. The army may have taken advantage, but the people did ask for this.

Sure, it wasn’t all the people. Morsi still has his supporters. But they have, for now, been disenfranchised by the millions of others claiming to speak on Egypt’s behalf and told that their voice doesn’t matter. How they react to this remains to be seen, but there are well-grounded fears that this development could push the Muslim Brotherhood into the kind of violent, radical political Islam that they have determinedly avoided thus far. It certainly won’t encourage the kind of reconciliation and unity that Egypt needs if it is to solve all the existential problems that are at the root of all the unrest of the past two years: the tumbling economy, the skyrocketing unemployment, the high price of bread.

But that’s the beauty of democracy. The people have spoken and, even if they get it wrong – well, it’s the people that suffer the consequences. DM

Read more:

  • Egypt’s never-ending revolution on Daily Maverick
  • Egypt: throwing the ballot box out the window on the Guardian
  • Egypt: coup or no coup? on the BBC



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