Saturday 6 July 2013

Democracy loses in struggle for Egypt's presidency

By Noah Feldman, Published The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2013

THE framers of the United States Constitution feared that democracy could devolve into rule of the mob.

Events in Egypt are a reminder of why that concern was justified. Essentially, the same pro-democracy activists who enabled Hosni Mubarak to be removed from power in February 2011 have now done the same to his democratically elected successor Mohamed Mursi.

In both cases, it was the protesters who made the government vulnerable. And in both cases, it was the army that delivered the coup de grace in the form of a coup d'etat.

Even acknowledging that Mr Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed party did a poor job over their year in power, failing to win over opponents or broaden their base of support, the latest coup is a tragic setback for democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law.

The first protests of the Arab Spring were calls to replace a dictator who had no democratic right to govern. The protests were inspiring not just because they said "enough" to a bad system, but also because the protesters aspired to replace that bad system with democracy.

Many of the original protesters were themselves secular or wanted a secular government. But by calling for free elections, they opened themselves to the possibility that the majority of Egyptians would not agree with them. That, in essence, is democracy: The majority gets to choose the government it wishes, subject to the guarantee of minority rights.

When the Islamists were elected by clear majorities in legislative and presidential elections, the secularists did not much like it - but at first they accepted the results as legitimate.

The constitutional drafting process that followed was truncated and in many ways inadequate, but the Constitution that emerged was approved by the public in yet a third demonstration that a majority (if not a large one) accepted the government as democratically legitimate.

And indeed, the flaws in the constitutional process were caused in no small part by Mr Mursi's justified fear that the constitutional court would trigger a military coup by declaring the assembly unlawful.

Over time, however, Egyptians who never liked Mr Mursi became impatient. In an astonishing show of bravado, they announced, with plenty of warning, that they were going to begin huge protests on June 30 - essentially advertising their plans to shut down the country and asking the army to intervene.

The protests did their work, producing a constitutional crisis that opened the door for the military to declare that Mr Mursi was no longer president and replace him on an interim basis with the head of the constitutional court, whose institution had been in cahoots with the military all along.

You might think that replacing an unpopular, Islamist leader with a secular judge is a victory for democracy. It is not. In a functioning democracy, there is an orderly constitutional process for protesting and removing a leader.

When someone is elected for a term of years, he should serve them out unless he resigns or is impeached. The popularity ratings of US presidents regularly sink below 50 per cent - Mr George W. Bush's fell into the 20s - but that does not mean they should be removed from office. The president needs a majority only when elected, not at every subsequent moment.

This applies to a president who is doing a bad job and even to a president who is violating the Constitution. (Who then, by the way, should be removed by a constitutional process, if at all possible.)

What distinguishes constitutional democracy from mob rule is that orderly processes are followed. And what distinguishes it from autocracy is that the military does not get to choose who rules. The Egyptian people as a whole are not getting rid of Mr Mursi. The army is, with cover provided by the protesters who lost at the ballot box.

What will happen next is sadly easy to foresee. A caretaker government will continue to have the strings pulled by the military. Don't expect elections soon, because it is entirely possible that the Islamists would win those elections. If there are elections, don't be surprised if the Islamists are banned from running. Like Iran, Egypt will be an autocracy with elections.

Should we expect the Brotherhood to fight back and ignite a civil war? Probably not. The group has a long history of avoiding violent clashes with the military; it prefers to bide its time and build public support. Still, it's a sign of Egypt's newfound volatility that the possibility lands within the realm of reality.

Today, the loser is not just democracy in Egypt but democracy itself. Other nations that choose to rise up against illegitimate leaders may want to forgo elections altogether, opting for the guardianship of an army or some other revolutionary vanguard. Or they may embrace the Chinese model, finding its calm, order and authoritarianism more appealing than the wild ride of democratic elections.

America's choice of democracy - a choice the Americans are in the midst of celebrating - was considered bizarre and unwise by many in its time. Only the US Constitution, with its checks on the mob, consolidated democracy and allowed it to become popular worldwide.

Today, the anti-democrats, past and present, are doubtless feeling self-satisfied with their newly won appeal. Let's hope the glory is fleeting in Egypt and the world over.

The writer is a law professor at Harvard University and the author of Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.


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