Egyptians’ collective cry of “Bullshit”

There’s been a lot of debate about the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Morsi, following three days of massive protests against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Much of the debate has centered around the question of whether to call it a coup, since the Army kicked out an elected leader but did so at the behest of millions of Egyptians. My friend Albert Trithart summarizes this debate and the implications for the international response well in the Fletcher Forum.

But there’s another big question arising from these events: To what extent does being “democratically elected” win you legitimacy on the international scene?

We’ve always known that elections aren’t the only necessary ingredient for a democracy. There are sham elections all over the world, in countries dominated by a single party or intimidated by the generals behind the curtain. Calling a leader “democratically elected” can mean no more than calling a product “laboratory tested”.

But in the international political arena, winning an election is the democracy stamp of approval. The focus on a single process – elections – has allowed governments to ignore un-democratic actions of other (democratically elected) governments. The importance of ongoing participation, and shorter democratic feedback loops, receives vague lip service, but is largely overlooked in the international election-centric narrative.

What Egyptians have done challenges this narrative.

The millions who protested against the Brotherhood’s rule did so not to undermine the democratic process, but as a last resort to claim a stake in the process that was being hijacked by a single party. The Brotherhood was undermining that democracy before it even could begin: closing off the constitution-writing process, suppressing political opponents and using their control of the state to solidify their lock on power. One could argue either way about the domestic justification or implications; personally, with no expertise on Egypt I will keep my argument to the international response.

There were the “good coups” in Niger and Hondouras in the past few years. But these were different, because they didn’t challenge the election-centric narrative. Presidents Tandja and Zelaya (ab)used their power in attempts to circumvent term limits, so their ouster by their respective armies was consistent with respecting the election process. In Morsi’s case, on the other hand, the election narrative would see him finish out his term, and let Tamarod wait for the next scheduled election to take action. By then it may well have been too late for true democratic participation.

The Tamarod movement’s incredible draw – and incredible results – was first and foremost a response to an increasingly inept yet power-hungry government. However, it’s also a collective cry of “Bullshit” to the international emphasis on the electoral process over true democracy.

Will the international community make drastic changes in the way they measure democracy? No, but this sort of change doesn’t happen quickly. I hope that Egyptians’ actions will slowly help open new ground in the democratic narrative, and lead to more support for a variety of democratic processes around the globe.

Of course, in Egypt it’s now up to the new leaders to ensure that they don’t repeat the same mistakes. Their elections plan is important but equally important is ensuring that mechanisms for participation by all parties – especially the Brotherhood – are in place and accessible. Here’s hoping that the current tensions can be calmed, and that nobody else has to lose their life for the opportunity to participate in building their nation.

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About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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