June 30: Egypt’s Pandora’s Box

The military’s removal and arrest of Morsi, has created great uncertainty in Egypt’s democratic future. writes author.

"While Morsi was ill equipped to effectively deal with Egypt’s post-revolution political, security and economic challenges, it operated largely within the democratic rules of the game," writes Solomon Dersso [EPA]

While it took 18 days of popular protest to force Hosni Mubarak out, the ouster of Moahmed Morsi on July 3 was achieved six times faster. As with the removal of Mubarak, Morsi’s ejection involved a combination of nationwide street protests and the intervention of the Egyptian army.

Unlike the overthrow of Mubarak, the forced removal of Morsi has divided opinions. Much of the reaction exhibited celebration or ambivalent acceptance of the coup. Others considered the ouster as a major setback for democracy and categorically condemned it. The dilemma faced by both international actors and commentators is best captured in some measure in Judith Levy’s question “Should we cheer the people or weep for democracy?”

Admittedly, this disagreement is in part ideological. Importantly, however, the disagreement also critically turns on the question of whether there is standard that can help us make as scientific a determination of the democratic legitimacy of Morsi’s ouster as possible. My purpose in this opinion piece is to propose a set of considerations and apply this to the case of Egypt for making such a determination. Accordingly, in the following paragraphs a set of four public policy considerations are identified and employed to determine whether the forced removal of Morsi stands the test of democratic legitimacy.

First consideration

The first consideration is whether democratic institutions and processes are dismantled and replaced by a tyrannical system of government. As articulated in John Lock’s Two Treatises of Government and subsequently established in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where a government institutionalized despotic system of rule destructive to the rights and welfare of its people then thepeople have the right to revolt against it and replace it with a democratic one. It is essential that the government became outright despotic and tyrannical or committed so fundamental a breach (such as mass killings akin to genocide or crimes against humanity) to forfeit any claim of legitimacy for it to be legitimately ousted through popular uprisings.

The popular protest of June 30 revealed that Morsi’s government grew to become widely despised. Admittedly, its performance in almost all areas of governance left so much to be desired. Indeed, in some areas such as the economy it proved to be an outright failure. Yet as various commentators pointed out, overt or covert efforts of the security establishment and opposition forces for frustrating Morsi’s government also share the blame for the poor performance and the resultant surge in the unpopularity of the government.

While Morsi’s government was not perfect and was ill equipped to effectively deal with Egypt’s post-revolution political, security and economic challenges, it operated largely within the democratic rules of the game. Its failures were not a product of outright despotism. Morsi’s government sin was becoming increasingly unpopular, ineffective and less inclusive. This does not constitute a fundamental breach capable of stripping the government of its democratic legitimacy and hence is not reason enough to warrant a democratically justifiable popular uprising.

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Second consideration

The second consideration involves the test of last resort. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people are entitled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against an oppressive government. This suggests that where there are legally established options of removing a government other than through popular uprising, such other options should first be pursued. It is where such options are not available that people can as a last resort legitimately depose their government through an uprising.

The June 30 to July 3 popular protest does not also meet the test of last resort. Apart from its electoral credentials, a major factor that distinguishes Morsi’s government from that of Mubarak is that (unlike Mubarak’s regime) it has not closed the legal options for its replacement. Ousting the government through street protests was thus not the last option.

As Abdullah Al-Arian rightly pointed out, people who opposed Morsi ‘could have mobilised their energies towards upcoming parliamentary elections, won the majority, and proceeded to amend the constitution and empower a prime minister to take on a greater share of policymaking than Morsi’. The possibility of voting Morsi’s government out of power was a real if long-term one happening only at end of the current term.

Third consideration

The third consideration is the popularity of the uprisings. Accordingly, the protests should reflect the true will of the people in all their diversities. It is essential that the uprising did not involve a partisan political agenda nor did it seek to impose a political agenda of one political grouping over the rest of society. The main test in applying this consideration is whether or not participation in the uprisings attracted a significant portion of the population transcending their ideological, religious, ethno-cultural, regional, gender and class divisions.

Again when it is measured against this consideration, the circumstances involving Morsi’s ouster poorly stands to scrutiny. The events of June 30 to July 3 do not exactly represent the case of a people against a regime but manifested a case of large percentage of the people against a significant other. Indeed, according to reports the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, which constitute the support base of Morsi’s government, represent a large part of Egypt’s population, perhaps half or more. As such, the protests against Morsi’s government reflected the will only part of the people of Egypt, despite the fact that they were widespread and attracted millions of Egyptians. The demand for ousting Morsi was also in significant measure ideologically charged as it was mostly driven by the desire to kick the Muslim Brotherhood from government.

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Fourth consideration

The fourth consideration is the part played by the military. Here the question is the kind of involvement of the military, the context in which the military got involved and whether the military’s involvement came out of a genuine interest and need for preventing total breakdown of law and order or eruption of major violence. Accordingly, for an ouster of a government in which the army played a decisive role to be democratically defensible it is important to show that the descent of society into chaos and civil strife could not have been prevented without the ouster of the government through military intervention.

In the case of the July 3 overthrow of Morsi’s government, it was not adequately established that the ouster of Morsi was the only way out of the standoff that emerged following the protests that started on June 30. While the demand for Morsi to leave office came from millions of Egyptians, the military’s intervention was decisive in overturning Morsi’s government.

As Marwan Bishara observed in an insightful article, the military’s intervention prevented “any last minute efforts that would save face and pave the way for constructive change, such as holding a referendum over the presidency or the building of a national unity government, leading to early elections”. Contrary to its statement that it was fulfilling the will of the people, the army used the protests to arrogate for itself the role of deciding for the people of Egypt. A New York Times opinion piece  by Khaled Abu El Fadel discusses this issue.

The foregoing establishes that Tahrir Square of June 30 and those who supported it were utterly wrong and its outcome fails the test of democratic legitimacy. Rather than correcting the path of Egypt’s revolution as the army wished people to believe, it reversed much of the democratic gains achieved since the departure of Mubarak.

The major question now is not whether deposing Morsi was democratically legitimate and justifiable. It is rather whether it was at all worth the risks facing Egypt today. Two major issues are now facing Egypt. The first is whether the crisis, deepening by the day as the army tightens the screw on Morsi and his support base, would spiral out of control. The other is whether it has lost its chance of a genuine democratic transformation with the army stripped of guarantees insulating it fromfull civilian and democratic control.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal academic and analyst of African affairs who regularly writes on African Union issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.