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

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum

9 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    First sensible comments on this. I feel uncomfortable at the Egyptian army removing an elected President, but, as you say, too many of Morsi’s actions indicated a particle & immature idea of what democracy needs to be.
    That said, we may be a curious kind of democracy here – where generally the Government receives vastly less than 50% of the actual vote in elections (let alone the whole electorate) – but you do get the feeling that the system is more about protecting the “us” with inherited wealth, power & position against the “them”, who don’t. It’s just in a “mature democracy”, we hide that fundamental imbalance much better.

  2. chavez says:

    Don’t western govts rule on behalf of their supporters? Rich people and corporations.
    Western populations are just too passive and apathetic to take to the streets like that,

    With the US funded army calling the shots now, they’ll get give Egypt a govt the West
    is happier with. Which was the plan all along I guess. Think we could ever kick one of
    our Labour or Tory govts out of office after a year of economic gloom? Not likely huh.

  3. Marverde says:

    Exactly right. An election is only a democratic process. Democracy has a “content” that MB does not understand. Winning an election does not legitimise what you do afterwards.

  4. Clive says:

    As Morsi has been arrested, and may be charged with treason, what precisely is a coup about this? Have not the military acted like a police force? The fact that the senior court judge is now president makes this look to me as entirely legitimate action to arrest and then prosecute a criminal.

    Should this have been done by the International Criminal Court? Do not states have rights to take pre-emptive action?

  5. Vivien says:

    Thank you for a balanced and insightful piece. I live part of the year in Egypt and get frustrated at the ignorance of so many as to how this country operates. How can you expect a nation, that was suppressed and prevented from thinking for itself for more than 30 years, to embrace and understand the workings of democracy in a few months? We pushed them to democracy and then are so quick to criticise when they stumble. The majority of the people in this country are not well educated and I have listened to so many of them asking for the army to come back, they feel safe with what they know. I believe it is our duty to help them to gain the stability they need in order to transition to a lasting democratic future.
    Instead of threatening to withdraw aid and spending hours debating if this was really a coup or not I hope our Governments and people can reach out to the Egyptians and offer them help, not just financial but social and commercial. In this way we will give them a chance to build their country. It might be slow but they can do it. We have seen peaceful protest and pushing for change, this is in great contrast to other countries both in this region and other parts of the world. Let us put our energies into helping and not criticising.

    1. G Fisher says:

      Democracy is not about allowing people to vote only. The army was right to ask Morsi to vacate office. In a democracy the ARMY functions to protect “the democratic way of life. That is the mantra of UK & USA especially since 2001. The Head of the Egyptian army should be congratulated not criticised. Some BBC and Channel 4 journalists are too ignorant of their own history. Ms Hilsum is absolutely on the nail but she spends all her time abroad in the real world.

  6. John P says:

    Watching the British media, especially C4 news and BBC, one gets the impression their constant reference to President Morsi of the MB was democratically elected is self-serving to Western Interests. Countries in Europe cannot countenance People Power: in Europe it would rid us of pro-Austerity governments.

    The Egyptian had a choice between a MB candidate and a military candidate. Many voted for Morsi as the lesser of two evils. Just like many of us vote for Labour and Lib Dems, both equally useless choices. The MB is funded by Gulf states like, the undemocratic Qatar, whose rulers are advised by the fundamentalist Egyptian Sunni cleric Sheikh Qaradwi.

    This is a victory of People Power and the people will hold the military to account.

    I am enjoying the antics of Obama, Kerry, Cameron and Hague, who like leaders like those lackeys in the Gulf and Saudi who do their bidding and whose loyalty is reciprocated by Western military support for their Salafist and Jihadi allies in Syria and Libya.

  7. Ash says:

    The elected too, but many are also all crooks too?
    Different rules for western democracies right.

  8. ANON says:

    Sadly so many revolutionaries consider that the new rule will solve all former problems. . Often the exact opposite occurs as a relatively stable if hated regime is overthrown. The ensuing chaos and disruption of accepted laws can cause wide spread impatience, dissatisfaction and a feeling of being totally let down. . In todays world with the widespread economic problems this is going to be even more strongly
    How long before dis satisfaction will cause another coup.? Hopefully the combination of the military and the current plans will prevent it.

    In a society where rigid Islamic beliefs are predominant it is even more difficult .Economic success by whoever provides it is really the only cure. Perhaps then the differing vewpoints which are the basis of democracy will be acceptable.We cannot expect Western standards [the good bad and indifferent] to be accepted in a rigid Islamic society.

    Democracy and greed put us in the position we are in now .But at least we are trying to resolve it.

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