Voting for one’s leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it harms democracy rather than furthers it – Michael Koplow
Michael posted the above on his frequently interesting blog – Ottomans and Zionists – before the Egyptian armed forces removed President Morsi from power, a move he warned against.
At stake here is a more nuanced understanding of democracy than the minimalist one hewed to by political science during the Cold War and by some (semi-)authoritarian regimes since – elections equal democracy equals elections. There are two main aspects to democracy that are relevant to analyzing what just happened in Egypt and, more importantly, what happens next: procedural and substantive.
I’m not going to take a position on whether or not what happened in Egypt was a coup, although that seems to be the game du jour on social media and among the western commentariat. Whether or not it was matters in only two significant respects that I can see. One, it may affect the ability of the United States and others to continue to give aid. But I suspect practical and strategic interests (not least those of the companies whose goods and services the aid pays for) will win out over semantic concerns. It may lead to Egypt’s suspension from the African Union also, but such a setback would surely be temporary and not hugely impactful.
Two, it helps to categorize phenomena if we are to draw apt comparisons in order to make predictions. Answering the question “of what is this an instance?” is the beginning of comparative political analysis. Even if this is classified as a coup, rather than a popular revolution, the prognosis is not too bad for a transition to democracy, according to research reported over at the Monkey Cage. So in the end, I don’t care too much what we call it (for now).
Back to procedural and substantive democracy. If you have time to read a full essay on these two conceptions of democracy, here’s one by Ryan Moboloc. He discusses Amartya Sen’s arguments about “positive freedoms” as foundational in a meaningful democracy:
Sen writes that freedom depends on elements such as social and economic arrangements, as well as political and civil rights (Sen 1999, 3). For instance, the positive freedom to participate in public discussion is something that provides the atmosphere for people to demand from their government the realization and enjoyment of just entitlements. While the prevalence of poverty can be attributed to “the presence of dictatorships, systematic social and economic deprivation, and the apparent neglect of provisions for public facilities, as well as intolerance and repression in many states” (Ibid.), the oligarchic arrangements in third world economies deprive the poor of the opportunity to determine their goals in life. People are powerless in leveling the playing field. They have no real voice. Equality in this sense cannot only be in terms of primary goods, but of “basic freedoms” or capabilities (Sen 1999; Sen 1992) that empower people in creating just institutions and fighting bad governance.
For Sen, the substantive freedoms of the people are instrumental in maintaining a better social, economic, and political life, and this happens because “people become part of the process of democratic participation” (Ibid., 4). This seems to go beyond the formalities of the basic structure, for while representation can empower some sectors through their elected representatives, the political reality however, is that when their duly elected representatives are already in power, public interest becomes secondary. The perpetuation of one’s political career becomes the priority of their elected leaders.
President Morsi’s government did not empower ordinary Egyptians, but rather concentrated its efforts on advancing the careers and agenda of Muslim Brotherhood members. We should be very mindful that the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that preceded Morsi’s election was no more successful in building positive freedoms for Egyptians. In neither instance were ordinary citizens’ voices heard in the corridors of power: this is ultimately what drives people into the streets, where their voices cannot easily be ignored.
The real test of the transition underway now will be not only in how quickly and effectively it moves to put in place “settled, legitimate rules of the game or institutional channels to settle political arguments” – functioning procedural democracy – but also in how well the evolving system is able to promote positive freedoms for all Egyptians. Will the process be inclusive? And will it attend to expanding the real life chances of ordinary people, meeting basic needs and allowing them to pursue a better life?
Misreading democracy as electorally-enabled majoritarianism contributed mightily to the massive demonstrations of 30 June and the major setback the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered. One can hope that the Brotherhood learns to appreciate a more substantive concept of democracy. The military-backed transitional government and whatever comes after it must do the same. Fulfilling the demands of the 2011 uprising for bread, dignity and freedom involves far more than free and fair elections: even if they are a necessary condition, they are insufficient.
Egyptians have become expert at making themselves heard when pushed too far. Government should learn to listen sooner and more responsively.