Sunday, July 7, 2013

Egypt and Legitimacy

Egypt is testing all our notions about democracy and legitimacy. The military has stepped in to oust Mohammed Morsi, the elected president, setting up an interim government pending new elections. The generals were responding to a deteriorating security situation and a rising tide of protest against Morsi's inadequate attempts to solve Egypt's many problems while strengthening his Muslim Brotherhood's hold on the levers of power. If you oppose the Islamization of Egypt you are probably in favor of the coup; if you favor it you're outraged at the nullification of an electoral result. If you are just rooting for the development of a responsive and effective democracy in Egypt, like me, you're probably conflicted.

I've written about democracy before; I've said that mere majority rule cannot be our highest political value. Majority rule can be just as tyrannical as any other kind; if fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, we can't just shrug and say "that's democracy". True democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it is a culture comprising such elements as a commitment to the rule of law, a free press, an impartial judiciary, a tradition of rational debate and responsible opposition, and guarantees of citizens' rights that do not depend on electoral ups and downs.

So Morsi's electoral win alone doesn't make him a democratic paragon. True, Morsi came to power in circumstances that would have challenged the purest of heart and the steadiest of hand; he inherited a deeply polarized country with severe problems in all the areas that affect the quality of daily life: economics, the environment, public services and basic security. All of this was on top of a dysfunctional political system that had gone from ossified dictatorship to who's in charge today under the pressure of massive public protests. And just after Morsi's election, the military council tenuously presiding over the country stripped the presidency of several important powers, reserving them to itself.

It would have taken a lot of luck and a lot of skill for anyone to make progress against those odds, and Morsi's high-handed moves, unilaterally claiming far-reaching powers, can arguably be seen as fighting his side of a tug-of-war with his equally autocratic military foes. Who defines legitimacy when the political rule book has been torn up?

Legitimacy is the central question in any political system. Legitimacy means that the ruled recognize the ruler's right to rule. For centuries legitimacy meant only that the ruling monarch had come to the throne according to the proper rules of hereditary succession. In the modern world we require a little more; we want power to be the product of a fair election and to obey the constraints that are supposed to protect us from tyranny. People will sacrifice to defend a government they view as legitimate; they will grow cynical and indifferent or hostile to one they see as illegitimate. Legitimacy rests on electoral success, but it requires more than that; a legitimate government cannot outrage the sensibilities of a majority or even a substantial minority of its citizens. A genuine mandate rests on electoral success plus an expectation that the electoral winner will follow widely accepted rules.

What's happening in Egypt is that two opposing views of legitimacy are going head-to-head. Those that think Islam is the fount of political legitimacy are on Morsi's side and are understandably angered that he has been deposed by a military establishment they see as the basis of the old kleptocratic regime. Their opponents are adamant that religion and the state are best kept separate. For them the electoral result alone does not justify Morsi's attempts to Islamize the state. Their view of legitimacy is akin to the one prevailing in the Western world. This is a fundamental conflict that goes beyond Egypt.

The idea that religion is the best foundation on which to organize society is still very current in the Islamic world. It used to be current in the West as well: Europe had to undergo a Reformation and a traumatic Thirty Years' War to settle the idea that matters of religion are best left to the individual conscience. Islam has not had its Reformation. Further, the failure of two imported development models, the Western capitalist one and the Communist one, to bring prosperity and good government to the Islamic world has opened the way to those who claim that only a return to Islamic values can lift these populations out of distress.

I make no secret of which side I'm rooting for: I'm for a secular state with religion left to the individual conscience. I believe that is the best model for human progress. But I'm also aware that this notion can't be imposed, either by foreign invasion or domestic military fiat. All those Morsi partisans out in the streets have rights, too, and if I disagree with their world view I sympathize with their aspirations for stability and prosperity. The notion that a secular state is preferable will have to emerge through protracted debate and no small measure of trial and error as Islamic societies confront modernity. I truly hope that Islam's Reformation will be less costly than Christianity's was. But I think it's starting.

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