Questions from Egypt about electoral democracy and legitimacy

One hopes that wrong conclusions aren't drawn from the despicable, barbaric slaughter by Egyptian security forces of Muslim Brotherhood protesters this week. The correct conclusion, I'd say, is that those given the right to use deadly force must be held tightly in check in any society. That's true always, everywhere. Personally -- and please brace yourself for this -- I see no basic difference between the Cairo carnage and the death of a distressed teenager on the Dundas streetcar last month. Sure, there are differences, including political versus individual, and one low-level cop versus the Egyptian deep state. But I'd still say they're on a continuum. In both cases, it's happened before and will again. The key lessons haven't yet been widely enough absorbed.

What would be the wrong conclusion? That the millions of Egyptians who went online and into the streets last month to protest and depose the Morsi government a year after it was elected were acting undemocratically because he was elected fair and square, and they just gave the military an excuse to kick him out and take over. One hears this a lot and it has teeth. But I find it smug and reflexive. It shows how undeveloped most of our notions about democracy are: elections are decisive, if you don't like the result, wait till next time. I don't think anti-Morsi protesters were disdainful of democracy, but they were dissatisfied with how it functioned. I'd give them credit for grappling with that.

A Canadian I know who's in Egypt says if you told anti-Morsi people they should wait till the end of his term, they'd say, Are you crazy? He's had a year and it's a mess. Why should we let him create more chaos and still control the next round of voting? This isn't like Algeria or Palestine where elected Islamist parties were deposed or undermined immediately. Mohammed Morsi had a year to prove his right to govern. It's as if Egyptians and others are introducing a new criterion: not just elections but ongoing legitimacy.

"After bloodshed, there is no legitimacy for the Ennahdha robbers," chanted Tunisian protesters recently, about the Islamist party that won there but has been implicated in assassinations. Mere electoral victory doesn't suffice. "What's the use of a revolution that doesn't change anything?" wrote Serge Halimi in Le Monde Diplomatique. This is a new, impatient mood and it blows up smug claims about electoral legitimacy. Or rather: it questions them.

Many Egyptian protesters remain anxious and tentative. They weren't happy when the military deposed Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and then tried to delay elections for two years: so they protested some more. They were nervous when the military deposed Morsi last month but hoped for the best. It's an uncertain, ongoing, exhausting exercise in democratic hope, which should evoke our admiration.

In fact, the "legitimacy" versus "elected fair and square" test ought to raise doubts here. Canada hasn't had a federal government elected by a majority of voters since 1984 but they all assume the right to enact anything. The U.S., the flagship electoral democracy, has obscene levels of inequality -- and getting worse statistically. Yet its 19th-century chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, said basic equality among citizens was the essence of "Democracy in America." Lives in Europe are now ruled by insensitive, unelected EU technocrats.

These are scary thoughts. What if democracies don't meet the "legitimacy" test? There are already anti-democratic, neo-fascist parties in most of Europe. That's exactly why questions raised in Egypt and elsewhere are vital. The western democracies of the mid-20th century didn't defeat fascism because they were elected; they did so because they won legitimacy among their own citizens through programs like the New Deal and other vehicles for social justice, which enhanced both equality and democracy.

Mouthing phrases like "free and fair election" does nothing for legitimacy. In fact, if you think about it, we hardly know what we really mean by democracy, which you only find out, in a democracy, by discussing it. The peoples of the Arab Spring and elsewhere (Occupy, Spain's 15M) have been doing most of the heavy lifting, even if the results remain ambiguous. More power to them, I say.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Globovisión/flickr

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