A Blow to Democracy in Egypt
One year ago Egyptians were celebrating the end of thirty years of dictatorship and the beginning of a new era of democracy. Now Egypt’s first elected President Muhammad Morsi has been ousted by a combination of street protests and military intervention. This is a mistake. By adopting non-democratic means, Egypt’s opposition parties are unwittingly playing into the hands of those, on all sides, whose pathology makes them incapable of building democracy.
Pathology Doesn’t Necessarily Take Sides
It is difficult to see how Morsi’s ousting is in Egypt’s interests; there must have been better alternatives. It is one thing for citizens to force an early election. It is an entirely different matter for the military to stage a coup. Morsi’s ousting will only cause greater division, undermine many Egyptian’s faith in democracy – particularly the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and set a dangerous precedent.
Important as elections are, democracy is about more than the ballot box. Fareed Zakaria and others have written about the importance of a constitution in setting the ground rules that all political parties must adhere to. This blog has previously outlined the seven pillars that protect us against the tyranny of pathological elites. These include the rule of law, electoral democracy, the separation of church and state, social democracy, protection for fundamental human rights, pooled sovereignty, and cultures of tolerance. Establishing each of these protective measures is the long term task for Egypt’s democrats. The choices being made now on how to get there will be crucial to the outcome.
It is often argued that in situations as divided as that in Egypt, the ends justify the means – in other words, where you end up justifies how you go about getting there. But in democracy building, the means are the ends. If the aim is to end up with institutions that all citizens can give allegiance to, create an inclusive civil society, establish clear and transparent rules for the transfer of power, build trust, and reach consensus – then these ends can only be achieved through fair and non-coercive means. A stable democracy cannot be built using non-democratic means.
It is also important to recognise that the true enemies of democracy are not the sole preserve of one faction or another. There are people on all sides who will thrive on the chaos and division that has been created, and use that chaos to rise to positions of influence within their respective factions. Such demagogues, who are incapable of seeing other people’s points of view, and are psychologically incapable of compromise, are the real threats to Egypt’s fledgling democracy. The true division then is not between one religion or another, or one political faction and another, but between those on all sides who would use the chaos and division for their own ends – to reach positions of power and authority. The majority in Egypt want democracy, but they are being thwarted by a minority, dispersed among all the opposing factions, who seek only their own ends. The normal majority of Egyptians are at risk of being left as bystanders to the destructive behaviour of this pathological minority.
Everything should therefore be done to keep the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in the political process, and to support democrats within that movement. Those who oppose compromise on all sides should be side-lined. Somehow a national coalition government must be formed in Egypt and a constitution written that protects basic human rights and political and religious freedoms for all. The UN should press for elections and a roadmap to achieve these goals at the earliest possible date. The alternative is violence in which many lives will be wasted, only to return in ten or twenty years’ time to the same position we are in today.
Egypt’s Other Revolution
It is important to highlight Egypt’s other revolution. The struggle in Egypt is not only a struggle for political rights, it is also a struggle for women’s rights and women’s equality. Women’s rights are crucially important for two reasons. First, without women’s rights you do not have a true democracy; and second, empowering women can reduce violence. And reducing violence in Egypt is now an urgent necessity.
The struggle for women’s rights in Egypt is proving to be a tough one. Despite their equal participation in the revolution to overthrow Mubarak, women were quickly sidelined. No women were appointed to the crucial committee that was appointed to draft amendments to the Constitution prior to the first parliamentary elections. A protest in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day to oppose women’s exclusion from the committee was attacked by a mob of Egyptian men. The women were beaten and sexually assaulted and their placards, which called for harsher treatment for sexual assault and fairer representation in parliament, were broken and trampled underfoot. In the first elections after the revolution, only nine women were elected or appointed to the 508 seat People’s Assembly – less than a seventh of the number who had sat in Mubarak’s old parliament. And in recent weeks, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights website, there were 101 cases of rape and sexual assault on women in and around Tahrir Square in the days of protests leading up to Morsi’s ousting from power. All of this illustrates clearly that Egyptian women’s battle is not just against their government, it’s also a battle against a dominant culture which denies them equal rights.
Conservative religious beliefs undoubtedly play a major role in denying women equal status. Sam Harris has written that there is ‘much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books’, and that ‘the Bible and Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish.’ It is this mix of love and hate that gives religion tremendous power as a propaganda tool in the hands of pathological zealots. This is also why it is so important for believers and non-believers in Egypt who share a commitment to human rights – particularly women’s rights – to set the agenda. Women’s rights and political rights should remain the twin goals of Egypt’s revolution.
A Global Call for More Democracy
Recent weeks have seen street protests in Turkey, Brazil, India, and in a number of European cities. These far flung protests are linked by a common thread – the desire by protesters that their governments represent the whole population, not just privileged elites or intolerant majorities. The wave of seemingly unconnected protests around the world in our age of unrest is a global cry for a new more democratic political order.
In this global struggle, the enemies of democracy and equality are the same as they have always been – in Egypt and around the world. The battles to wrestle power from the hands of a violent and greedy minority continue to shape our headlines daily.