Democratic dilemmas that should not be – some lessons from Egypt

The news headlines of recent days have brought to the fore some serious shortcomings related to the functioning of democracy and attitudes towards it. The questions raised are fundamental and answering them poses some real dilemmas even to staunch believers in democracy around the world.

Events unfolding in Egypt since last week are as dramatic for the country itself as they are for the future of democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and beyond. A democratically elected President was deposed and replaced by the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, while opposition and religious leaders were clapping along. In this scheme, opposition leaders who lost to Mr. Morsi at the ballot box a year earlier were offered senior government positions in what is touted as a national unity government but is not. The main premise of the military-spearheaded “non coup” is that transitional arrangements will lead to a return to full legality and new elections through a dialogue of all political forces, while the country is rescued from economic disaster.

This may be more or less what the pro-Western and modernist elite, as well as millions of largely secular-leaning Egyptians may want to see. In their mistrust for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was there from the start of Mr. Morsi’s Presidency and was reinforced by some of his decisions and his rather poor performance, they are ready to twist the facts and participate in a process that denies democracy in the name of democracy. They claim the strength of numbers at Taxim Square and opinion polls, when they should know that in a democracy the only decisive poll is the ballot itself, which cannot happen every month of year. And they are directly or indirectly cheered on by outsiders, who preface their statements with words of sorrow for the rapture in the democratic order, but basically show understanding for the rationale put forward and are willing to give the new order a chance.

This is not good enough, though. If one sticks to principles things are very clear, and should be stated as such. Mr. Morsi has to be reinstated as the legitimate President of Egypt and the troops should retreat to their barracks. Those religious and political figures who are worried about the state of the country and the economy should discuss with the President possible solutions, including the formation of a national salvation government under him. And the good allies and friends abroad should encourage such developments with advice for moderation towards all sides.

Democracy has its limits and that should be openly said and accepted. Expedient majorities cannot legislate away individual or collective rights of smaller groups. Nor can oppositions focus on overthrowing those in the majority from day one of their term and with whatever means. In a democracy there is a legitimate and useful role for everybody, from government and opposition politicians to politically-neutral civil servants to the private sector and civil society. They can all contribute on the basis of their respective responsibilities that they should hold dear, and not only their rights, advancing their country in the process.

One can only hope that the next transition in Egypt, which should happen in the next few days, will be peaceful and that the settling of accounts will be limited to public debate and the ballot box without any further military interventions, arrests and killings. The opposite may bring chaos and even civil war to this largest and most influential of Arab countries, and may create a new pole of instability in a region already marred by old and new conflicts that transcend its narrow borders threatening the stability of the bigger world.

Georgios Kostakos

Brussels, 8 July 2013