The trouble with a 'coup for democracy'

By Sumita Pahwa

Egyptians are fiercely divided on whether the recent army intervention to depose the increasingly unpopular president Morsi was a step forward or backward for democracy. Those who flooded Tahrir Square to cheer a 'second revolution' argued that the Morsi-led government may have been elected but that it had lost legitimacy with its exclusionist, illiberal exercise of power. The Brothers had stoked fears of electoral authoritarianism in the past year: their demonstration of bad faith in going back on assurances that Morsi would appoint a consensus cabinet including opposition figures, their signalling of hegemonic intent in trying to circumvent the courts with constitutional declarations, in attempting to stack institutions of state with loyalists and most importantly in pushing through a narrowly partisan constitution against the protests of the non-Islamist opposition, and their willingness to clamp down on civil society by punishing critical voices and tarring NGOs as foreign agents, revived old fears that Islamists merely saw elections as a means to an illiberal end.

Yet while a military intervention offers a chance to start over, it also entrenches anti-democratic norms and incentives in the following ways:

1) By allowing the military to cast the deciding ballot in political deadlocks, and to determine what the "voice of the people" is and to execute "the popular will," this intervention reduces the incentive for parties to invest in electoral and political organization and to woo the army instead. This keeps praetorianism going instead of encouraging all political actors to respect democracy as the only game in town.  

2)  This also reduces pressure on all actors to negotiate compromises and encourages them to use protest rather than elections as a path to achieve political change. The MB-led government's refusal to acknowledge just how fragile a mandate it had and to offer their critics and more sceptical allies channels for ongoing input and feedback was the first step in this direction: by not channeling opposition institutionally, they left anti-system protest politics as the only effective tool for the opposition. But the opposition was also largely unconvinced of the importance of party organization, seeing it as a dreary process that was stacked against them to begin with. The lesson of military intervention is: if you don't like your government, wait till you can overthrow it. If those in opposition have little hope of changing policy by legal means and continue to use anti-system politics as the only effective tool, institutions suffer. Moreover, however powerful a demonstration by millions of Egyptians from across the social spectrum might be as a sign of popular discontent, there is no substitute for elections  to voice the 'popular will' - or to prevent any one group, whether secular today or Islamist tomorrow, from claiming that it alone speaks for the people, to the exclusion of all others, because it has been able to put up a show of strength on the street.

3) Secular opposition actors have insisted their activism was aimed at creating a more inclusive democratic order. Yet their willingness to justify illiberal tools to achieve their goals should give us pause: the MB were not willing to defend the freedoms of those who they believed were "against religion," and their opponents are cheering a similar approach now, shrugging or actively cheering the military and security establishment's shutdown of Islamist media and arrests of MB leaders. The SCC's politicization has continued with the appointment of its head as transitional president. There are also reports that MB leaders may be charged with insulting the judiciary and "crimes against the people.  Repressing free expression and using the judiciary for politically motivated revenge weakens the very structures of liberalism that are most needed to revive democracy: a truly free press and independent judiciary.

4) This keeps the cycle of using temporary political victory to dehumanize and crush your opposition going and, more disturbingly, risks teaching Islamists the lesson that using legitimate, electoral means to achieve their goals is pointless. It also sustains the belief among Islamists that the secular opposition is willing to use any means, even allying with most hated, repressive institutions of the old order, to exclude them, and that a nominally democratic new political order is no different from the old order in its alliances of exclusion. The mistakes of the last two years may be undone, but so will years of political learning, and the Brothers are likely to return to the paranoia and defensiveness they have historically been most accustomed to. Few democratic orders can survive the exclusion of a significant popular force for long. 

What can be done at this point to set Egypt's democratic transition back on track? 

1) The vindictive imprisonment of MB leaders must be stopped and they must be allowed to participate freely in upcoming elections, without politically motivated court cases against them. The national unity government that is to be formed under the army's transitional plans should include Islamists too. 

2) The legitimacy of elections must be carefully protected and parliamentary elections must be called soon. The electoral law cannot be seen as undoing Islamist attempts to manipulate results in their favour if it is amended in the opposite direction, i.e. if it is designed to exclude Islamists. Secularists are quick to argue that "there is more to democracy than elections," but there is no democracy without elections, and they must be prepared to organize electorally and win elections fairly. 

3) The new electoral law should increase incentives for compromise, for example, by increasing the power of parliament and of the prime minister over that of the president. Parliamentary systems are better for encouraging negotiation and limiting the 'winner takes all' mentality that is so risky in democratic transitions, and if political rules are being revisited, the parliamentary model is one that should seriously be considered. A blocked political order in which temporary winners exclude their opponents is one that the last two years have shown us the importance of avoiding.

4) Judges must return to their positions off the political stage as quickly as possible. The neutrality of the law is absolutely essential for the success of new democracies, as is the acceptance of the law by all. To this end, amending and revisiting key articles in the constitution to ensure its acceptance across the board is also important but must be done quickly in order to move Egypt out of a transitional legal framework into a permanent one. 

5) The most difficult and least predictable factor is the army, and while much depends on what it chooses to do, political actors can limit or enhance its negative influence by their own actions. If politicians appeal to the army and appoint an army-sympathetic president after the next elections, Egypt will follow the Pakistan model (and the one-time Turkish model) of the army as eternal political arbiter, with all parties urging it to intervene on their behalf at times of crisis. Inevitably the army will realize at some point that it's easier to govern directly rather than through political proxies. It may be impossible under an army-mediate political transition to introduce clauses in the constitution limiting the military's role in politics but till all political actors agree on the importance of doing so, democracy in Egypt will depend on the goodwill of the military, which the history of militaries in politics worldwide indicates is not a reliable position. 

6) It is an uncomfortable truth that all successful democratic transitions depend at least partly on unelected institutions doing the right thing, and on elected governments respecting the rights of those who did not elect them. Elected governments must seek consensus and resist the temptation to use victory for revenge, or write new laws to benefit their short-term position rather than the long-term health of democracy. Judges should not be politicized and armies should return to the barracks. None of these things has been achieved in Egypt in the last two years, but it would be a tragedy if the upheaval and violence of the past year did not teach all actors the futility of short-term self-interested thinking.