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Forget legitimacy: the Egyptian Army’s intervention has come at the expense of trust

The west needs to take a step back from the ‘coup or revolution’ debate to consider what the overthrow of Morsi means for democracy in Egypt, and remember why democracy is the best bad system. The Army’s intervention has sowed the seeds of mistrust for generations.

Benjamin Young
18 July 2013

Should we welcome the latest uprising in Egypt? Western commentators and policymakers have so far been unable to make their minds up. Their debate has tended to focus on the extent to which the Army’s eviction of President Morsi was ‘legitimate’; in other words, whether the intervention was democratic, a manifestation of the popular will. Unfortunately however, this misses the point.

Asking if the overthrow of President Morsi was ‘what the Egyptian people wanted’ is the wrong question. It assumes democracy is necessarily a mechanism for producing, as if by magic, a popular consensus. But it is not. An alternative function of democracy – some would say its true genius – is in providing a solution to the problem of truly irreconcilable views; a roadmap for when Rousseau’s famed ‘general will’ fails to crystallise. Deciding what we want from Egyptian democracy and judging whether or not the Army’s intervention helps us get there should start from the premise that there is no popular consensus.

In situations such as Egypt’s the purpose of democracy should not be to translate the will of the people into action. This is after all a futile endeavour when no one group has anything approaching majority support from the populace, and when divisions are too sharp and strong leadership too important to allow for government by coalition. In other words, there must be a President, but there can only be one, and there is violent disagreement – literally – as to who it should be.

In these situations we should stop looking to democracy to give us government by the people and instead look to its secondary function, often taken for granted but arguably more important: peace.

Democracy secures peace through a simple bargain: one party is allowed to govern unimpeded, on the condition that the other parties will be allowed to govern unimpeded when they get their turn. It is in everyone’s interests to refrain from insurrection – even when the governing party is pursuing deeply objectionable policies – because this is the only way to guarantee that their rule will not be similarly interrupted.

What most western observers seem to have forgotten, however, is that the alignment of the interests of all with the stable government of one does not apply automatically. Rather, it depends on the presence of massive levels of trust. This is because allowing any opposing party to govern is an extremely high-stakes gamble: if the party in question uses its power to fix the rules of the game in its favour, or just abolishes the democratic system outright, other parties might be deprived of the chance to govern for a generation or more.

In western democracies, this may only entail losing the right to deploy an economic ideology or gently nudge some social norms. But in unstable countries such as Egypt, with endemic poverty and high levels of ethnic and religious tension, the stakes are much higher. For those groups who depend on political power for food, or for minority rights, a generation on the political sidelines is a matter of life or death, persecution or freedom. When faced with a ruling party they cannot trust, it is therefore in the interests of these groups to overthrow the government even though this will destroy the democratic bargain on which their own peaceful reign depends, since even tenuously held power is still better than no power at all.

This, of course, explains why the various opposition factions that make up the Tamarod movement couldn’t allow Mohammed Morsi to finish his term in office: they didn’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood to refrain from rigging the game permanently in its favour. But crucially, it also explains why the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsi had begun to do precisely this. For once elected, it is only in the governing party’s interests to play by the rules if it expects to be treated fairly in the future, when eventually consigned to opposition. If it fears being permanently denied the chance to govern again, it is entirely rational to take the first and possibly only chance to secure power, even if this risks provoking a coup. Better to make a stand now, the logic goes, than to limp meekly from office, never to return.

In other words, if the Muslim Brotherhood trusted Egypt as little as Egypt trusted the Muslim Brotherhood, it had every incentive to pursue oppressive and autocratic policies. Given the systematic repression meted out to the Brotherhood by Egyptian presidents since 1948 in the name of modernity; and the sworn determination of liberal opposition leaders to destroy the Brotherhood for good, this explanation seems plausible. But the point is that even if the Brotherhood was wrong to be so mistrustful – if its place in Egyptian politics would not, after all, have been threatened had it governed fairly and still been defeated – its fears were clearly understandable under the circumstances.

What lesson should we take from this story of fear pitted against fear? The conclusion seems obvious, but is one that Western policymakers and institutions have struggled to learn in their haste to make short term gains. It is that the only way to guarantee Egypt a peaceful future is to build trust between its conflicting parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood will not go away; it remains the best organised political force in Egypt, has the longest history, and commands the strongest loyalties. Neither, evidently, will the liberal and Salafist opposition groups. Nor will any one party gain the support of a majority of Egyptians in the near future. Egypt’s only hope is for the parties to trust each other enough to take turns sharing power.

Building trust is a more urgent goal than promoting liberal values or rebooting the Egyptian economy because without it, there is no incentive for any party to do anything in government other than secure its own power, or do anything in opposition other than plot to seize it.

This is why the Army’s intervention is a bad outcome for Egypt. It confirms all of the Muslim Brotherhood’s worst fears about its opponents, such as their willingness to ally with the Army, an institution seen as loyal to the Brotherhood’s old enemy Mubarak. It gives the Brotherhood no reason to compete in the upcoming elections, since even if it wins it may be thrown out of office at any time, and no reason to respect the rule of the parties that do win, since it believes they will spend every day in power working to ensure the Brotherhood never takes office again. Moreover, the violence and chaos that has accompanied Morsi’s downfall – the shootings, the mass arrests, the humiliation – will leave psychological scars that remain long after the physical scars have healed. It will be at least a generation until the Brotherhood can trust Egypt again.

But what was the alternative? Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood to finish its term in office, regardless of the cost in terms of the economy, social issues and day-to-day political freedoms, would have been a gamble. But it would have sent the most powerful signal possible that the Brotherhood need not fear its opponents. It might have provided the cement for the foundations of a strong, stable democratic tradition. There is unfortunately no other way to build the trust necessary for stable democracy, no shortcuts or quick fixes, just slow, painful tolerance.

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood may be good for modern, secular liberals in Egypt. It may prove beneficial for Egypt’s economy. It may even, in the short term, be democratic. But it might also have destroyed any prospect of peaceful democracy for a generation.

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