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Converting The Tyranny of the Majority : The Egyptian Example

Egyptian Freedom
A coup d'état (or putsch, or pronunciamiento), the sudden seizure of governmental power by a small group, is almost invariably a detestable event. Typically a military event, as they have the resources to carry this out effectively, they are often associated with the overthrow of a popular democratic government by a military associated with an existing ruling class with foreign backing. The Pinochet coup against the elected socialist government of Allende in Chile in 1973 being perhaps the most well known example of this type. However this is obviously not the only type. Sometimes a coup can occur from the competing different factions within military-dominated governments. The latter case is often tied to a succession of civil wars, and is particularly the case in resource-rich developing countries where different groups aspire to control monopoly profits.

Recent events in Egypt bring certain questions to the fore. In January 2011, protests rose against the government of Hosni Mubarak, whose authoritarian social-democratic National Democratic Party was a member of Socialist International until these protests. These protests involved hundreds of thousands of people and with clashes with security forces resulted in over eight hundred deaths. Increasingly however, it became clear that the armed forces would not act against the protesters and in February Mubarak resigned with the military assuming control for a while, resulting in a constitution referendum in March and parliamentary elections in November and January 2012.

The parliamentary elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamicist Freedom and Justice party and allies win 37.5% of the vote with the ultra-conservative Salafi-Islmacist al-Nour party and allies winning 27.8%. The secular and liberal-nationalistic New Wafd Party was only able to muster 9.2%, and the left-wing secularist Egyptian bloc 8.9%; voter turn out in the three-phase election never exceeded 62%. In the May-June 2012 Presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party candidate, Mohamed Morsi won with a slender margin, 51.73% against the secular-nationalist and former military commander Ahmed Shafik, who received 48.27%. In November 2012 Morsi granted himself unlimited rule by decree that would not be subject to judicial review, effectively making him an elected dictator. The following month Morsi signed into law a new constitution, which had been approved by the Constituent Assembly at the end of November, and followed a referendum held between the 15th and 22nd of December. Whilst passed with almost 64% of the voting public, the turnout was a mere 32.9%.

The new constitution was high problematic. Whilst it did contain some provisions against torture and arbitrary detention, it confirmed the excessive powers of the President, failed to ensure civilian trials, or protect freedom of speech and religion. Islamic law was established as "the main source of legislation" defining Shari'a, in terms of a particular sectional Sunni jurisprudence (fiqh) for evidence (priority to oral testimony by notaries) and interpretation. Where rights were provided they were typically with the caveat that they would not contradict ambiguously worded provisions, such as the preservation of "the true nature of the Egyptian family", or ensuring the protection of "ethical and morals and public order". Freedom of expression was allowed but without prohibitions on "insults" to the person or to the prophets. Freedom of worship was allowed for Muslims, Christians, and Jews - but with no protection for other religions or for those of no religion. Media freedom was allowed as long as it did not "contradict the principles on which the state and society are based". Women were apparently free from discrimination and would be granted equality, within "the provisions of Islamic Sharia". In other words, almost every time there was a civil right, it was effectively prevented by an ambiguity which revealed an Islamicist force.

Unsurprisingly there were immediate and sustained protests, led by liberal Muslims, persecuted Christians (who particularly suffered for blasphemy charges under the Morsi government) secularists, and those simply concerned with the need for the rule of law. By April 2013, the Egyptian Movement for Change had collected 22 million signatures calling for Morsi's resignation. Throughout Egypt it was been estimated that fourteen million people participated in the protests, making it certainly the largest in Egypt's history and possibly the largest in world history. The protests, which continued through to July, included significant loss of life mainly due to clashes with riot police and also due to an Islamicist militant insurgency in Sinai, and clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi civilians. Overall, from November 28, 2012 to July 5, 2013 some 178 people were killed with thousands injured.

With ongoing protests the Egyptian military removed Morsi from office on the 3rd of July and suspended the constitution, appointing Adly Mansour as the interim president. Morsi and leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested. Television stations that supported the government were taken off the air. By the end of the week, pro-government protesters took the streets en masse, numbering in the tens of thousands, with a notably violent incident occurring on July 8 with clashes at the Republican Guard headquarters resulting in 54 pro-government deaths and 3 deaths of members of the security forces. Pro-Morsi protesters have also made a point of targeting Coptic Christians with rioting and killing in Nagaa Hassan, Dalaga, and Port Said's al-Manakh, along with further actions by Islamic insurgents in the Sinai and Suez.

At risk of making predictions, the conditions do not seem positive for a successful return of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Although their protests have been marked by more violence per diem than those of the the anti-regime protests, they are significantly smaller, not even a tenth of the size and shrinking. Further, it should be very obvious that they do not have any significant support with the powerful Egyptian armed forces or even the police forces, many of whom joined the protesters, in uniform, during the final days of the regime. Given the context, as the possibility of a Morsi restoration becomes unlikely it is quite probable however that a hard core of supporters will turn to terrorist violence which will remain an issue for some years to come.

Assuming however the the military-backed interim government comes good with its promises and introduced new elections, the possibility of a conservative Islamicist party winning a majority of votes must surely be considered as contingent. This raises a classic political conundrum that was thoroughly debated in the early days of the modern political state - that of the tyranny of the majority, or, to use the Hellenic term, ochlocracy, where democracy is corrupted by demagoguery. In this case however it is not the matter of the populist "fickle crowd" as the Hellenes envisaged the term, but rather the conservatism that can only come from an underdeveloped population of religious minds that cannot fathom the concept of applying universal rights independent of majoritarian characteristics.

Polybius ("Histories") is believed to have coined the term ὀχλοκρατία, referring to the degenerated democracy, just as the Hellenes considered tyranny to be a degenerate monarchy, and oligarchy the corrupted form of aristocracy. In each of the corrupted and degenerated cases, governance was action in the interest of sectional interests rather than the entire community as a whole. The famous chapter of de Tocqueville ("Democracy in America") initially elaborates the great strengths of majority rule compared to that of monarchies, also notes that this strength includes unlimited power which he describes as "a bad and dangerous thing". Thus it is the great strength of democracy that is also the source of its "great evil", for when it merely means a majority rule, it forgets the equality of rights that is the foundation of a free and informed majority, and it neglects the great strength of an admixture of ideas that comes from inclusiveness.

In order to prevent this "great evil", a number of carefully considered solutions have been proposed and implemented in the enduring liberal democracies which have proven effective. Charles-Louis de Secondat (aka Montesquieu) recommended a separation of powers with checks and balances between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial ("The Spirit of the Laws"). Another method has been to limit the role of governance to the res publica, the public sphere, leaving the rights of individuals as an explicitly protected space; such an opinion can be derived from Hannah Arendt ("On Revolution"). Other methods include the requirement for a qualified majority for the most important of legislative changes, especially changes to a constitution. Reviewing the situation from the reverse, Mancur Olson ("The Logic of Collective Action") notes how well-organised minorities are able to achieved their sectional interests in a democratic state at the expense of disorganised majority who only has a general interest at stake. This alerts to the need to design political systems that ensure that the common good is always the feature of governance, rather than a collection of sectional interests.

All of these features must be included in Egypt and indeed all those countries of the "Arab Spring", if the revolutions are to succeed. Whereas Egypt was ruled for many years by an authoritarian semi-secular dictatorship, it has just undergone an authoritarian theocratic democracy. A liberal secular democracy is still yet to see the light of day, although groups like the National Front for Salvation of the Revolution in Egyptian politics is promising. This broad coalition of some thirty five liberal and left-wing secular parties holds around a quarter of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and about one in five of the seats of the House of Representatives, but is very well placed for big gains when the military government reverts to a democracy. Contrary to the conservative claims of some, secularism (‘almaniyya, ilmanniyya, and dunyawiyya) and a Muslim majority can live side-by-side, a position even justified by Islamic hadith itself: "If a question relates to your worldly matters you would know better about it, but if it relates to your religion then to me it belongs" ("The Sahih of Imam Muslim").

An Egyptian constitution that protects individual liberties and rights first and foremost is required to prevent a reversion to a majoritarian tyranny of the majority. It is a necessary, if not sufficient, component for the honour of the individual. A constitution that ensures that democracy is reserved for the management of the public sphere and common resources, is necessary to prevent the tyranny of the majority and, for that matter, the power of sectional minorities. This is the necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for the dignity of the people. Finally, such a constitution which is both liberal and democratic - must also be protected from populist vagaries by a qualified majority, for example at least an absolute majority of the eligible constituents. Never again should the opinion of a mere 21% percent of the population determine the rules for an entire country that considers itself democratic.

It is true that Egypt has undergone almost three years of tumult and instability; revolutions are like that. They involve sudden changes, experimentation, and sometimes failure. But the people of Egypt can be proud that they are working through these issues with passion and intellect. Even when there are outbreaks of violence and extremism they can be reminded that they are shedding off decades of authoritarianism and achieving a new political system of liberation, tahrir, in a matter of mere years. In the particular instance of the largest protests in Egypt's history against a demogogic ruler, the Egyptian military acted.

Time will determine whether their action was the right thing to do. One of the metrics of the judgement will be the military coup of Costa Rica of 1948 led by José Figueres and the National Liberation Army. A disputed election resulted in a short and bloody civil war where some two thousand people were killed. Taking control of the government, Figueres and his team began instituting a program of individual liberty and social democracy. They granted women and the children of black immigrants the right to vote, and abolished literacy requirements for the same. They nationalised the banking sector, and used that wealth to provide for basic welfare and universal education. They established a professional civil service, ending patronage and nepotism. True, the new military government did ban the Communist Party for its support of the previous regime, but it operated under a new name in any case. Having provided these liberties, rights, and codified a new constitution, the military junta of Costa Rica did something quite remarkable, unique and beautiful; it abolished the military. In the decades that followed, uniquely among Latin American nations, Costa Rica enjoyed a stable, liberal, democratic government - and never experienced a military coup ever again.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on September 21, 2013.


During recent weeks, the world has been witnessing a dramatic departure from the democratic agenda in Egypt. The political situation has continued to deteriorate rapidly, further diminishing the prospects for national reconciliation and democracy.

The violent crackdown and extreme use of force by the army and police against demonstrators, which has resulted in scores of deaths and many more injured, is deplorable and is unequivocally condemned by the Socialist International.

Political persecution must stop. Mohamed Morsi and all members of the opposition under arrest must be released.

The right to peaceful demonstration must be respected.

Restrictions placed on opposition media outlets and on freedom of expression must be immediately lifted.

The return to the deployment of the police units used to suppress demonstrations, the same units that were suspended following the 2011 uprisings, is utterly unacceptable, as is granting the interim Prime Minister the power to place the country under a state of emergency, as in the past.

Egypt’s democratic agenda, brought forward by the millions who wanted to do away with the repression and human rights violations of previous years, must be urgently restored. As stated by our International, the interim authorities resulting from the military intervention must uphold the rule of law and engage in the preparation of presidential and parliamentary elections without delay. Nothing less than true democracy, the enjoyment of freedoms and rights for all, should be the way forward after the sacrifices of so many since 2011. The Socialist International calls on all the Egyptian citizens, all groups and all political parties to give priority to dialogue, pluralism, mutual recognition and respect, preserving the spirit and goals of the 2011 revolution.