I don’t think Egyptians were thinking about Thomas Jefferson when the late Omar Suleiman provided the historical watershed moment announcing the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. It only took Suleiman thirty two seconds to announce that Mubarak was stepping down, but time stood still when he was finished. Mubarak was gone. What was inconceivable only three weeks prior to February 11 2011 had been achieved and the windows of opportunity were not opened - they were obliterated never to be closed again. The celebrations that night in February and the countless harmonious slogans of “the people and the army are one hand” and “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice,” seem a long, long time ago. Two years later, Egyptians may not be directly thinking about Jefferson now either, but tell them he once said, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49,” and they would understand the irony.
A lot has been said and written about Egypt’s democratic transition over the past two years. One narrative is that it is a step in the right direction and that revolutions take decades, not months, to see any signs of success, while others will tell you that the revolution couldn’t have stirred more off course. It is not through a lack of trying. Two constitutional referendums, parliamentary elections, and presidential elections have left Egyptians “all voted out,” and there has been a steady decline in voter turnout with each passing election or referendum.
Throw in Mubarak’s trial - Egypt’s very own “Trial of the Century,” and a tumultuous and violent eighteen months of military rule with a military supposed to be “one hand” with the people, and you start to see why Egyptians, despite several elections, feel unrepresented, frustrated, and with no sign of an outlet except.....yes, you guessed it, more elections in April.
But just as Jefferson alleged, nobody warned Egypt that democracy wouldn’t solve all of its problems. Instead, the country appears to be splitting in three directions: Islamist, liberal, and the fed up - the latter being those who are tired of elections and political diatribe, and continue street protests because of what they see as a failure of the democratic process to achieve the goals of the revolution - the irony of course being that the goal of the revolution was democracy itself. As a result and according to the recent voter turnout in the constitutional referendum in December 2012, Egypt’s democratic paradigm is far less about the Islamist vs. Liberal binary, but about the silent majority who have slowly checked themselves out of the democratic process, clearly unsatisfied with what elections have yielded thus far for the country.
That leaves me asking the question: now what? Parliamentary elections in April will be the last time in four years that Egyptians will have to vote, and in that time the democratically elected Morsi and parliament will be left to govern – but if the first eight months of Morsi’s tenure is anything to go by, elections far from guarantee the support or the silence of the people who have continued to protest specifically against his presidency and the decisions he has taken within it thus far. Indeed almost every time I speak with a non-Islamist Egyptian about Morsi’s next four years in office, I am greeted with the confident reply: “Don’t worry, he’ll never serve his full term.” But that doesn’t go any further in answering my question or offering an alternative to what “democracy” has thus far provided, and the reason why Jefferson’s comment about democracy rings so true in Egypt. Forget “51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49” – it’s far worse than that.
In his Confessions, Rousseau quipped: “I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat cake.’” With the last of a two year election-and-referendum-frenzied-period coming to an end in April, Egyptians are eating their democratic cake, disappointed that it looks nothing like the picture on the menu.