Liberalism vs. Democracy in Egypt

by Jason Brownlee | published December 6, 2012 - 8:02pm

President Muhammad Mursi’s Thursday night address did not mollify protesters, but it clarified the stakes in any dialogue between his supporters and the National Salvation Front led by Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdin Sabbahi and Amr Moussa.

ElBaradei has likened Mursi to Husni Mubarak and demonstrators outside the presidential palace have shouted for Mursi to leave office. Other critics have even drawn analogies to the most notorious fascists of the twentieth century. Charges of tyranny, however, obscure the fact that the two sides have valid but distinct bases of legitimacy.

Whereas the National Salvation Front’s partisans represent Egyptian liberals and their views of individual rights, they cannot claim a democratic mandate. Conversely, Mursi and his dominant Freedom and Justice Party can invoke democratic legitimacy for their form of religious conservatism -- hence, the president cited the “will of the people” in his speech. They have disregarded, however, the minority of Egyptians who are committed to a liberal political system. These visions -- liberal and Islamist -- must be reconciled if Egypt is to avoid the contemporary menace of religious majoritarianism and the old nightmare of secular authoritarianism. In the meantime, the opposition’s delegitimation campaign threatens the Egyptian revolution’s greatest achievements to date -- the enfranchisement of the Egyptian people and the sequestering of the Egyptian military.

Despite charges that Mursi is a new pharaoh, during the past 21 months Egyptians have participated in a series of increasingly democratic elections while producing a political system that is less and less autocratic. To the chagrin of liberals who drove the original uprising, though, elections have ratified their isolation from the Egyptian masses.

Two months after Mubarak resigned, the groups now behind the National Salvation Front argued that a constitution should precede elections; 78 percent of Egyptian voters endorsed the opposite plan. In the Egyptian republic’s first democratic parliamentary elections, liberal candidates won less than a quarter of the seats. (The indirectly appointed constitutional assembly reflected this outcome, as liberals and representatives from Egyptian churches comprised one fifth of the body.) After their dynamic standard bearer, the leftist Sabbahi, placed third in the presidential elections, with 20.4 percent, liberals split their votes in the runoff between a life-long Islamist, Mursi, and a Mubarak-era holdover, Ahmad Shafiq. Mursi edged Shafiq 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent to become “the most democratically chosen national leader in Egyptian history.”

Now the Front’s triumvirate has called for appointing a fresh constitutional assembly “more reflective” of the people’s will. While purporting to seek national consensus, however, liberals are reincarnating the anti-democratic elitism of the ancien regime. Through urban protests they are trying to undo the product of multiple national elections and constitutional deliberation by democratically chosen representatives. Beneath the slogans against the president lies the old argument of Mubarak and his cronies: Secular authoritarianism is preferable to a democracy infused with faith. More troubling still, when protesters chant for Mursi’s downfall in scenes reminiscent of the original 18-day uprising, they are all but banking on military intervention. Courting a coup against Mursi or prolonging Egypt’s transition risks erasing the great strides made toward popular sovereignty and civilian control over the state.

So far in his tenure Mursi can be credited with both enabling and endangering Egyptian democracy. After taking office, he quickly proved himself more than a figurehead for the then-ruling junta, forcing the country’s top generals (and provisional overlords) into retirement. The move did not ensure civilian sovereignty, but it inaugurated a historic -- and more democratic -- balance between the country’s civilian and uniformed leaders. Never before had the authority of 13 million Egyptian voters eclipsed the 21 men on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Rather than being a civilian leader for all Egyptians, though, Mursi rapidly alienated the very constituencies he vowed to represent: Christians, women, revolutionary youth and millions of other non-Islamists. First, he broke his promise to appoint Coptic and female vice presidents. Then he declined to attend the enthronement of Pope Tawadros, a squandered opportunity for inter-faith detente at the highest level. More generally, he has remained firmly in the camp of the Muslim Brothers, rather than dissociating himself and building a politically diverse core staff. The final straw for the liberal opposition was when Mursi declared himself beyond judicial oversight until voters approved a new constitution.

The president’s partisans in the Constituent Assembly ensured that the period would be brief but polarizing. They hurriedly drafted a constitution that was economically neoliberal and religiously conservative, in the process ignoring the concerns of non-Islamists who had withdrawn in protest. Unapologetic FJP representatives have stated that their local constituents support Mursi’s plan to end the transition. They add that if Egyptians oppose Mursi’s policies, they can vote him out in 2016.

Defeating Mursi in elections four years from now will not satisfy the opposition today, but removing him any sooner would represent a grave setback. At this tense juncture in Egypt’s transition, it is important that the ideological debate between liberalism and Islamism not be seen as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Clearly, Mursi and the FJP have not shown the magnanimity or the inclusivity this historic moment calls for. But narrow partisanship and executive overreach do not equal dictatorship, particularly in a transitional situation where the rules are in flux and no institutions, including the judiciary, are apolitical. Indeed, the constitutional drafters actually enjoy more democratic legitimacy than their detractors. They have pushed the country into crisis, however, because they did not specify how the state would defend women, non-Muslims, journalists and other vulnerable Egyptians from the predations of the majority.

As for the National Salvation Front and its ilk, a movement that garners 20 percent of the vote does not speak for the whole country. Electoral weakness, however, cannot become synonymous with political exile. Otherwise, every minority party will prefer storming the presidential palace to competing at the polling station.

Fortunately, and despite the deaths of over six protesters this week, Egyptians in record numbers have embraced voting and rejected violence. Therefore, the best guarantee against a vicious cycle of religious populism and military coups may come from Egyptian liberals fighting democratically for their ideas. As Nervana Mahmoud writes, “It is time for aggressive campaigning to explain the pitfalls of the new constitution and how it can negatively affect the general public.” For luminaries like ElBaradei, that campaign will entail pursuing dialogue not just with Islamist leaders, but with the masses of Egyptians they have yet to reach.