4 Jul 2013

Egypt: a coup or the birth-pangs of true democracy?

Was it a coup or was it a revolution? Either way, yesterday the first democratically elected president of Egypt was ousted.

In last year’s elections, the secular liberals who had spearheaded Egypt’s “Arab Spring” uprising in 2011 failed to agree on a single candidate, so their vote was split and they lost.

The decisive second round was a grudge match between two old adversaries, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

Western governments applauded Egypt’s elections, despite their discomfort at an Islamist win. They had to because they – especially the Americans – constantly push for elections as a starting point for democracy.

But I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. Elections should come towards the end of a democratic process of transition.


Egypt proves the point. Former President Morsi was fairly elected, but he didn’t govern democratically because he didn’t understand the basic point: in a real democracy winning an election does not mean winner-takes-all majority rule.

Protection of minorities and human rights are just as critical as elections.

Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood forced through a new constitution that failed to guarantee the rights of secularists and Christians. When he found it hard to work the levers of Egypt’s deep and sclerotic state, he didn’t negotiate or compromise but awarded himself dictatorial powers.

He allowed the police and other thugs to commit atrocities against his enemies, and on occasion had his critics locked up. In other words, he didn’t govern for all Egyptians but ruled on behalf of his supporters.

The plea “but I was elected” is not the point. Look at what’s happening in more mature democracies.

National unity

In Turkey, people protested against Prime Minister Erdogan because, although he was elected, he was governing like a dictator, making decisions based on his own whim.

In Brazil, the protests were about corruption and the government’s decision to spend huge amounts of money on football stadia not education and healthcare – the government was elected but was mis-spending taxpayers’ money.

So where does that leave “Arab Spring” countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya? I would argue that you have to start with some kind of imperfect “government of national unity” that includes the main elements of society (military, political parties, revolutionary groups, religious leaders, technocrats).

Sort out a new constitution, establish bodies to oversee human rights, allow freedom of speech. Work out the limits on power. Only then go for elections.

I know all the arguments against – the government of national unity would have no legitimacy, there would be endless arguments, nothing would ever be decided.

Those are all problems to overcome. But I still think a headlong rush into elections, before the basic tenets of democracy are set, is a mistake, the result of which we’re seeing in Egypt today.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.

Read more:

President Morsi ousted in military coup

Egypt’s interim president sworn in

Mohamed Morsi: what a difference a year makes – video

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