Opinion: The Fate of Demo- cracy in Egypt

Is this what democracy looks like?
Is this what democracy looks like?

By Sean Callaghan

The Problem

What happens after the revolution?  How does a people move from their desire to overthrow a regime to the concrete practice of governing according to democratic principles, and what exactly are these principles?  These are the questions I keep asking myself while watching the political drama unfold in Egypt.  Before we can address these questions, though, we need to set the stage.

Rewind to a year ago.

Spearheading a movement that came to be known as the Arab Spring, Egypt and its people lit the fires of revolutionary zeal by showing that popular movements could win the day against a tyrannical government.  They gathered in Tahrir square, confronted the oppressive Mubarrak Regime, and won.  It was a time of celebration, a time when revolutionary vitality became infectious and spread not only to Egypt’s neighboring countries, but reached even as far as our own front door.  A people rose up, and regimes fell.

But then what?

After the fall of the Mubarrak Regime, and following a brief but painful period of military rule, the Egyptian people celebrated the inauguration of their first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi.  Promising to distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood to whom he was affiliated for the sake of governing on behalf of the people, Morsi took immediately to the business of running the nation.  Things seemed bright for Egypt’s post-revolutionary moment.

Fast-forward back to the present.

Morsi is out.  Following months of dissatisfaction with his increasingly dictatorial policies, protesters returned to Tahrir square shouting out against the very man they shouted in while prompting the military leaders to depose their democratically elected President.  Some are calling it a military coup.  Others are calling it a legitimate transition instigated by the will of the people.  Whatever its name, it came at the sacrifice of the rule of law as the military leaders suspended the constitution in order to enforce yet another regime change.

Not surprisingly media commentary on the events transpiring in Egypt are as muddled as the facts themselves.  Some, like Nobel Laureate and former Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed Elbaradei, believe the military coup was justified, that the military forces were only abiding by the will of the people.  Others, like UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Rights, Richard Falk and Professor Emeritus of International Relations Mohamed Ayoob have published articles arguing the military is doing more harm to Egypt’s development as a democratic nation than good.

What seems missing is a serious consideration of the question of what to do when the forces of change need to match their revolutionary ideals to the concrete restraints imposed by conditions on the ground.

Constitutional Rights vs. Material Conditions

In the case of Egypt, this clash of ideals with reality seemed most pronounced in the controversy stirred by Morsi’s proposed amendments to the interim constitution of 2011.  The key debate seemed centered around the nature and rights afforded to the Shura council, a Senate-like governing body whose members were partly selected by the President.  The Shura was given definition in Article 35  and 37 of the provisional constitution.  A translation of these articles read as follows:

Article 35: The Shura Council will be composed of a number of members determined by law not to be fewer than 132 members, two-thirds of whom will be elected by direct, public and secret voting (at least half workers and half peasants), and one-third of whom will be appointed by the president of the republic.”

Article 37: The Shura Council will assume its responsibilities upon election. It will study and recommend what it views as necessary to preserve support for national unity and social peace and protect the foundational elements of society and its highest values, in addition to rights, freedoms and general obligations. The Council will consider the following;

  • 1- The project of general planning for economic and social development
  • 2- Draft laws referred by the president of the republic.
  • 3- Whatever the president of the republic refers to the Council on subjects related to the state’s public policy or policies related to the Arab and foreign affairs.”

In accordance with these articles the Shura Council would provide oversight over the decisions of the People’s Assembly Council.  In the period before the People’s Assembly could be elected, however, the Shura Council would act as the default governing house of parliament.

As we are familiar in our own constitutional systems, any establishment of a governing body whose members are not wholly elected by public vote threatens to introduce cronyism and corruption into the affairs of government (we need only look at the scandals and debates plaguing our own Senate to witness this).  Egypt’s Shura Council was not an exception to the rule.  The initial criticisms waged at Morsi upon his selection of the Shura council members was that he was building a government dominated by an Islamist faction represented primarily by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. These problems with the Morsi government were then compounded in November of 2012 when Morsi, through his spokesperson Yasser Ali, attempted to place both the Shura council and his own Presidential seat beyond the reach of constitutional law, declaring that “No judicial authority can dissolve the Constituent Assembly or the Shura Council” and “All constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since Morsy assumed power on 30 June 2012 cannot be appealed or canceled by any individual, or political or governmental body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected. All pending lawsuits against them are void.”

These declarations for all intents and purposes centralized power into the hands of a small ruling class immune to judicial oversight with the President at its head.  Tyranny, it seemed, had returned to the halls of Egyptian government.  Following mass protests instigated by Morsi’s November declaration, the President elect was forced to relent on his bid for extra-legal power the following month.  By then, though, the damage had been done.  An anti-Morsi faction had been formed, and would work against him until his final unseating at the hands of the military this month.

Looked at on its own, the above seems to offer reason enough to justify the overthrow of a corrupt leader.  Yet, we cannot forget that Morsi is not the only player vying for power.  Lest we forget it was the military that forged the path through which he could take up his seat, and the military were not going to give up their power so easily.  As is written in article 56 of the provisional constitution:

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deals with the administration of the affairs of the country.  To achieve this, it has directly the following authorities:

  1. Legislation
  2. Issuing public policy for the state and the public budget and ensuring its implementation


  1. The right to promulgate laws or object to them.
  2. Represent the state domestically and abroad, sign international treaties and agreements, and be considered a part of the legal system of the state.
  3. Appoint civilian and military employees and political representatives, as well as dismiss them according to the law; accredit foreign political representatives.”

Put in the context of the above articles, we can see how Morsi’s attempts to place his presidency, and the Shura council above the rule of constitutional law might have been an attempt to loosen the hold of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces over his governing administration.  One can imagine the kinds of problems any government would face when having to share its power of authority with another party that did not necessarily share in its vision.  It did not help that the government itself was paralyzed by infighting and partisan politics.  In effect, without extra-legal powers Morsi would end, as he indeed did if we are to consider his complete impotence in instituting effective economic reforms, as a lame duck President.

This is What Revolution Looks Like

Ironically, commentator to CNN, Mohammed Ayoob, in his article on the current situation does not abide by the criticisms that characterized Morsi’s rule as too exclusive.  Rather, Ayoob writes, Morsi should have been more exclusive in his selection of cabinet ministers and Shura Council members.  He should have surrounded himself with a strong, devoted faction of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, so that he would have been able to avoid the factionalism that plagued his administration.  Furthermore, he should have curtailed the military’s influence when he had the chance at the beginning of his presidency instead of letting the military lick its wounds and recover legitimacy with the people.  Surprisingly, Ayoob argues, not that Morsi was too dictatorial, but that he didn’t centralize power enough when he had the chance.

This to me speaks to a central problem that inevitably emerges in the transition period bridging a people’s revolution to the institution of a stable governing power. The problem seems to be that revolution and democracy operate at odds with one another.  That is, democracy as it is currently understood in its parliamentary form seems only able to function under an already domesticated population.  As Morsi discovered, the differences dividing the people after a revolution are too numerous and subtle to be resolved by means of representation.  In the face of so much difference, what could he do except establish a temporary oligarchy to push through constitutional reforms?  If we look back in history we see that Morsi is not alone in this decision.  With the Russian Revolution came Stalin’s iron hand.  Out of the fires of China’s revolutionary history came the figure of Mao.  Even the Meiji restoration in 19th Century Japan needed the figure of the Emperor to quash the various competing political factions that emerged as a result of the fall of the old Tokugawa regime.  In fact it only seems appropriate that Japan’s parliamentary democracy came into being during the rule of a lame figurehead – the mentally disabled Taisho Emperor (and even this democratic reform was soon demolished by the forces of fascism).  If our democratic imaginary is held strictly to the parliamentary type then our revolutionary movements such as those seen in Egypt will constantly be plagued by the problem of what to do after the revolution has ended.

Now, I’m sure there are those who would argue I should look at France, the United States, and all other successful liberal democratic nations for my historical precedents.  After all, didn’t these democratic states emerge from the ashes of revolution?  Aren’t they the blueprint for the new world?  Yes and no.  Yes, they found the means to create democracies from revolution, but no they can no longer function as the blueprint. They found democracy  through the mediation of a market ideology.  In this sense it was not democracy but liberal democracy that allowed for the rise of a stable democratic nation-state.

Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, it is the global market crash of 2008 that has set the stage for popular unrest and revolutionary upheaval.  The free market is not going to save us.  It is one of the roots of the problem.  After all, even should Egypt find a new leader who will magically resolve all its problems of factionalization to produce a strong democratic system, it will still crumble in the face of economic immiseration.  They must still resolve the problem of skyrocketing inflation, and an unstable economy that must compete in a world market already loaded with enough problems as it is.

No, our answer on how to make the transition from revolution to democracy will not be found in past examples.  Egypt again stands at the forefront of revolutionary consciousness, and it has a few paths it can follow.  It can either embrace, as Ayoob has suggested, a dictatorial presence that will guide it through its transitional period back to economic instability in a global competitive market.  It can embrace the religious right that threatens to pull them back under the sway of a tyrannical ideology,  or it can lead the way into truly revolutionary territory – to redefine what it means to be a democracy.  The potential, although slim, exists for the military to act according to its given mandate – not to govern, but merely to guard the people’s right to govern themselves.  And the people should enact this right – not to vote in a new leader who will re-enact all the same dilemmas and contradictions Morsi has shown plague parliamentary democracies, but to act for themselves, on behalf of themselves, and for the sake of themselves.

A democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Woudn’t that be something to see?

Sean Callaghan holds a PhD in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto.  He currently lives with his wife and two guinea pigs in sunny Vancouver.  He is also a contributor to The Toronto Review of Books, and posts infrequent ruminations on his more personal anxieties on his blog Ornery at 40.

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