Truman National Security Project

Ballot Box Legitimacy in Egypt: Fact for Fiction?


It seems almost prophetic that on the day the United States celebrated the 237th anniversary of its birth, the people of Egypt were rejoicing at the ousting of their first, democratically elected president.  The question of what constitutes democratic governance and legitimacy of power challenged America’s forefathers, and now confronts the Egyptian people, binding these two events over time and space.

Before July 4th, our local newspaper printed the Declaration of Independence, and I read it with a new perspective, keeping in mind the unfolding drama in Egypt. Particularly noteworthy are the following lines: “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government…in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and suffering.”

In Egypt, Syria, Turkey, most certainly Russia, not only do grievances against governments fall on deaf ears, but undemocratic practices are conducted under the slogan of ballot box legitimacy.

John Locke wrote that consent of the governed confers political legitimacy.  By ignoring the protests of the Egyptian people against constitutional changes, by trying to change the secular nature of governance, by failing to address economic problems, and governing by fiat, President Morsi lost political legitimacy, democratically elected or not.  What he should have done, as should Assad, Erdogan and yes, Putin, is to have resigned and called for new elections.  Instead, he continued to hold on to power defiantly, arrogantly and without regard to public opinion and interest.

Should the army have interfered when it did and was Morsi’s removal a coup? A case can be made, based on diplomat observations on site in Egypt, that it was not a military coup because it was supported by the democratic opposition and the youth groups responsible for the protests that toppled Mubarak.   The military prevented hostile sides from increasingly violent confrontation, and did not keep power, instead, ceding it to the top judge in Egypt until new elections can be organized. Experts also point out that 13 million Egyptians voted for Morsi’s election, while 22 million signed the petition to remove him.

The interim president, Mr. Mansour has a daunting task ahead – to diffuse the volatile political situation and stop the bloody attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood, concentrate on reviving the economy, and, under a national reconciliation and inclusiveness umbrella, call for new elections.  Most important, he needs to learn from Morsi’s mistakes.

Egypt’s failed first attempt at democracy starts and ends with the premise that legitimacy of power is a continuum guaranteed from election to election, independent of the will of the governed. In established democracies, there are institutional safeguards in place – parliamentary oversight, a functioning judicial system and a viable civil society – to moderate a leader’s propensity for autocratic rule. Such safeguards do not exist in countries where democracy is a concept, not a functioning from of government.

The violence throughout the Middle East is also symptomatic of the inability of society and governments to engage in democratic dialogue.   On the part of civil society, there must be improvements in the petitioning process, while leaders must listen and respond to the public’s demands, or justify their actions clearly and concretely.

Relying on elections as the mainstay of democratic governance in the short- term, can and has led to the self-destruction of democracy in the long-term. We have only to remember the words of Joseph Goebbels to fear for democracy: “ will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means (elections) by which it was destroyed.”

In 1776, America was in a far better position to sever its ties with England, than Egypt in ousting Morsi from office, because it had a stellar leadership lineup engendering public trust, as well as government institutions capable of safeguarding a democratic balance of power.

Democratic development does not begin and end with elections.  It is firmly established only when people feel empowered to influence political processes, including the resignation of democratically elected leaders.   It is this sense of political empowerment that continues to be the hallmark of the American democratic system, and that is so woefully lacking in Egypt.

Vaira Paegle is a fellow with the Center for National Policy.