Red card for Morsi, yellow card for democracy

The red card for Morsi is at the same time a serious yellow card for democracy in Egypt. It will bring future prospects for democracy into deep trouble.

Jan Völkel
3 July 2013

The Egyptian military has asked “all political actors” to fulfill the demonstrators’ demands within 48 hours, otherwise it feels obliged to step in to prevent the country from slipping into further chaos.

While most of the demonstrators cheered up to these announcements, analysts see major problems for Egypt’s democratization process.

The message is clear. According to the organizers, more than 22 million Egyptians have signed the “Tamarod” (“rebel”) movement’s claim that Mohamed Morsi should immediately step down as Egypt’s president. Their initial target of 14 million signatures was overtaken by a large margin. And then, on 30 June 2013, the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency, several million Egyptians came out onto the streets to demonstrate against him all over the country, clearly outnumbering the demonstrations against former President Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago. Hundreds of thousands of red cards, saying Irhal! - Get out!, were held up.

Given the demonstrators’ impressive number and their apparently united stance, warning voices that criticize the latest developments face hard times. As streets and squares in Egypt drown in the slogans and shouting, especially after the military’s request that Morsi might fulfill the people’s demands within 48 hours, who wants to listen to critiques that fear negative consequences for Egypt’s young democracy if the country’s first democratically elected president is shouted down and removed after one year?

Morsi’s supporters, not only from the Islamists’ side, also demonstrating with impressive numbers, have a point. Not only was Morsi democratically elected, the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party also gained about 50% in the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections, and the Salafist Al-Nour Party another 25%. Hence, some 75% of voters supported the idea of having Islamist politicians in power.

To be blunt: Morsi made bad policy choices. For sure he confused being a president of all Egyptians with being a president for all Egyptians. Despite his reconciliatory remarks and promises after his election, he quickly proved that his prime interest is less to include different voices in the political process and stabilize the faultering economy, than to foster the MBs’ dominance and impose strict Islamic moral values over the society. Along the way, how the constitution was elaborated and enacted tells us what kind of intentions his policies were based on.

So, will a removal of Morsi contribute to an easing of tensions and an improvement of the situation? Probably not. But it will bring future prospects for democracy into deep trouble – the red card for Morsi is at the same time a serious yellow card for democracy in Egypt.

First, Morsi’s many supporters reject the current procedures and react with disaffection; they argue rightly that democracy is about competition for power in elections, not in vocal battles on streets and squares. Morsi’s removal will probably alienate many of them from the overall idea of democracy. The already deeply divided society, that is for sure, will in future be even more divided.

Second, a credible substitute for Morsi has not appeared on the horizon. Though Mohamed el-Baradei has risen into prominence as the leading spokesman of Tamarod (and the many opposition groups that are behind it), he is still far from being a credible candidate for the state’s highest office. And if he (or anybody else) were to be elevated into this position – what will happen if people become dissatisfied once more? Will they again go out into the streets to eject him from office? It paves the way for easy access for Islamist groups to play exactly this card and disturb political processes however well-devised.

Third, fears are widespread that the old regime might seize the moment to orchestrate its comeback with the military’s help – the connections between the two sides are still in existence and close ones; the removal of Mubarak did not mean the removal of many influential channels behind the scenes.

In a sense, the governmental crisis can also be understood as the crisis of the opposition. After the enthusiastic demonstrations against Mubarak in early 2011, secular parties failed to gain anywhere near enough votes to establish a powerful and credible opposition. Other actors took over this task instead. The lower house’s dissolution by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court on 14 June 2012 – quickly implemented by the military interim SCAF government, in power at that time – was more the attempt to prevent Islamist dominance in parliament than tackling problems with the electoral law, the official reason. The same can be said for the recent dissolution of the Shura council on 2 June 2013, the parliament’s upper house.

The calculated elimination of Egypt’s legislature is its main problem. Morsi and his cabinet did not face any institutionalized political opposition. In the absence of the parliament, this task was left to judges, generals, and grassroot movements. Hence, the strengthening of the parliament as a central institution is crucial for a successful relaunch of Egypt’s democracy. Morsi’s simple removal from office might satisfy the masses, but Egypt’s institutional deficit needs a more far-reaching solution.

Clearly the military has the power and the potential to interfere in Egypt’s political processes. But for the sake of democratic principles, it would be better to have left Morsi in office and push for new parliamentary as well as presidential elections instead.

Then Morsi could have run the elections as the incumbent, and voters could express their will again to say whether they want him or not. This would be the best, of admittedly only bad, options. But as it is now, the momentary triumph has the potential to cast a shadow over any long-term prospect for a successful democracy in Egypt. 

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