I love Egypt and Egypt Air. Because of the latter, I have found myself in Cairo every summer for the last 3 years. So on 3rd July 2013 I had just arrived at the Cairo airport and was awaiting Egypt Air to arrange my transit visa and take me to my accommodation in the city when suddenly all Egyptians around rushed to the nearby TV. Apparently there was some big development in the “anti-Morsi” protests which were then on-going. I could see an army officer making an announcement flanked by many important looking people; but I did not see Mohammed Morsi. I was alarmed. My fear is understandable since the last thing a transiting passenger wants is to be caught up in an upheaval; secondly, similar elegant military officers have in the past hounded Nigerians with their signature tune of “fellow Nigerians”.
Regardless of my fears about the military announcement, the people around me at the airport and those on the Tahrir Square were jubilant. Unable to understand any Arabic, I had no clue what an army officer would have said to cheer up such a “democratic” people. By the time I got a watered down translation, I understood that there had been a coup. Later in the beautiful Le Passage Hotel, I watched a repeat broadcast of the speech by General el Sisi with an English voice over on tv. It was so chilling to watch thousands of people in the Tahrir Square cheering the overthrow of a recently elected President with the loudest cheer coming as the suspension of the constitution was announced. I never imagined I would live to witness a day when people would cheer when they are told that the constitution over them had been suspended; now I am traumatised.
Mohammed Morsi was elected President of Egypt only in July 2012 (I was in town the week of his election too). It was a difficult election they had; they have been under the ‘dictatorship’ of Mubarak since before I was born and they had just concluded their ‘season’ in the long Arab Springs. So they lined up 13 candidates in the first round vote, but the election proceeded into a second round.
The second round the vote was between Mohamed Morsi who got 13.23 million (or 51.7%) votes and Ahmed Shafiq who got 12.35 million (or 48.3%) of the votes. Note that voter turned out rose up significantly from 46% in the first round to 51.85 in the second round. The election was quite a moral and national dilemma in Egypt; should people vote for Morsi, candidate of the hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood? Doing so, it was feared, could push the country to the Islamist extreme. The alternative was Shafiq who was a Mubarak Prime Minister and considered to be a ‘remnant’ of the old regime therefore thought to be corrupt and likely to be soft on removing whatever evils Mubarak had sown. So by nearly 52%, the vote went to Morsi.
In the 1 year Morsi spent in office, he made many political enemies (I am not sure that he made many new friends besides me). He surely ranked high in the ‘Most Criticized Presidents’ Index. Morsi perhaps assumed that protests and counter protests breaking out in 2013 are likely to be a natural way of life in Egypt and wouldn’t amount to much. By the time the organisation Tamarud and a number of football militants began to mobilise against Morsi, I didn’t take them very seriously. But it was rumoured that Tamarud had collected 15 million signatures on a petition for Morsi’s resignation and for new elections – but they never posted the said petition anywhere I can find. Bear in mind, Morsi rode into office atop only 13 million votes; so to garner 15 million signatures on a petition was really symbolic. Furthermore, the Tamarud petition was said to have called on the military and the judiciary to lead the country in to new elections. The logic here is to dump democracy, go military and then arrive at a democracy.
Democracy was always a game of numbers; some of the uncharitable have even called it the tyranny of the majority. The beauty of political theory is that it is truly theoretical –its proposals are anonymous and designed to be generic with certain known preconditions. Democracy by definition in political theory is a one-size-fits-all kind of thing; suffrage for example is proposed as a right that applies equally to all adults; the slight room for variance is only in the definition of ‘adult’. Democratic governance on the other hand is envisaged to be based on the will of the people as expressed through diligently verified elections and all procedure for change of government are supposed to have been documented in the constitution so that we don’t make the rules retrospectively.
By default, every change of government that does not follow the rules set down in law is to be considered illegal and regrettable – including the Arab Springs and all revolutions and popular protests which result in changes in government. But there is a longer answer; if citizens were constrained to change their government by way of a ‘spring’ rather than by elections, it is a tough decision that one cannot pontificate upon from a distance. Protests and civil disobedience could be used by a people to achieve change – but using this strategy does not change the fact of its illegality and unsuitability for the future. Protests, like wars, may have solved political problems in the past; but they are wrong and I look forward to none.
The coup that happened in Egypt on 3rd July 2013 was simply the regrouping of some of those who voted against Morsi in 2012. Having lost at the ballots, one does not expect all of them to easily be impressed by Morsi’s policies and governance style – no, it is natural for the opposition to oppose. What is natural is also for the opposition to await the next elections before deposing the sitting government. The duality imposed in run-off elections is so severe that there is very little room on the razor-sharp edge to sit on. Today’s Egypt could roughly be divided into those who voted for Morsi in 2012 and those who did not. Since the Muslim Brotherhood has stood by its candidate in what is now called “pro-Morsi” protest since 3rd July, then it is safe to conclude that Tamarud and all the anti-Morsi folks in the protests are the same ones Morsi had thrashed at the polls.
To use a mix of military force and a politically inclined ‘social movement’ to achieve political change which is then defined as ‘democratic’ or ‘transiting’ is beyond me. Now President Morsi has been kidnapped since July and is facing “trial” for crimes he allegedly committed before assuming office. The only people who are known to have seen him are a string of Western diplomats. Thousands of Morsi supporters are camped out in Nasr City in Egypt calling for their elected president to be returned to office, Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman who tried to join them was put back on the plane that brought her into Egypt. Meanwhile the current authority which gained office by way of a protest is planning to use the police to break up the pro-Morsi protests. Having gained office, now protest is criminal even though General el-Sisi had recently called for a protest to give his Army the mandate to clear away protesters. I am reminded of Animal Farm.
It is not only Egypt. In Bulgaria they had an election in May 2013in which voter turnout was 53%. Unpleased with the outcome, “millions” of citizens allegedly took to the streets trying to push down the elected government and hold new elections. I do not claim that elections are fault-free; on the contrary. Even if periodic elections are failing to deliver the governments we yearn for, they are indispensable in democracies. If on the other hand democracy is evolving into populism, then we need to set the rules governing protests just as we have over elections. We need to agree on who can call for protests, under what circumstances and put in place mechanism for verifying the turnouts and the wishes of the masses during protests. It is only such rules and control systems that differentiates democracy from anarchy.
But if you think about this, you will see that elections are easier than protests.
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