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There is a strong current of opinion in the US and around the world that, because Morsi was freely elected, any attempt to remove him, other than through the ballot box, is a fundamental violation of democratic principles.

If Morsi were governing in the US or Europe or any of a number of long-standing democratic countries around the world, I would concur. However, IMHO, Morsi's Egypt fits into a special category - countries that are struggling to institute democracy for the first time in many years (if ever). Countries in this condition are especially vulnerable to a tragic syndrome.

Their first election may be their last.

If that thought is provocative, follow me over the orange squiggle.

First, let me establish my perspective on democracy. Many believe that democracy=elections. In our well-established system, that is a pretty close match.

However, I believe that it is the underlying democratic institutions that are the true soul of democracy - its not just elections. The democratic institutions (constitution, rule of law, and checks and balances) provide the stable platform that guarantee all elections, now and in the future, will be fair. If the elections are reliably fair, then elected representatives will remain accountable, whatever they do. And accountability is the pulsing heartbeat of democracy. If elected officials are no longer accountable, democracy dies.

For countries that are newbies, the first election is just the start of the process. They have to prove that their democratic institutions can survive making a bad choice. They have to prove that their system will ultimately hold the elected officials to account. If that underlying system breaks down, the first elected representative can easily transform into a despot.

This is not hypothetical. History is full of examples of democratically elected leaders who evolved into tyrants:

  • Hitler - yes I had to go here, because this is history's most extreme case. Hitler was elected in 1933. His party won the most seats, but didn't win a majority. When he was appointed chancellor in a minority government, he called for new elections and mounted a ruthless campaign against opponents, partly with the help of the new power of the Chancellorship. Democracy never appeared again in Germany until after his death.
  • Mugabe - Robert Mugabe was elected as a beloved figure with great popular support. He ended up as a hated and despised despot. He gradually used his elected power to corrupt and brutalize the country.
  • Marcos - Ferdinand Marcos was first elected as an idolized figure of the resistance against the Japanese in WWII. When he was ousted in 1986, his government was synonymous with corruption and repression.

In these and other cases, a relatively fair and free election placed a country in the hands of someone who quickly (Hitler) or slowly (Mugabe, Marcos) destroyed the country's underlying democratic institutions.

Kossacks rightly decry this process when it occurs (albeit at a smaller, slower pace) in our system. Tom Delay, Scott Walker, and Rick Scott were all elected in free, fair elections. As much as we may detest their policies, it was their use of their elected power to attack legitimate political opponents and democratic institutions (gerrymandering, direct attacks on unions, voter registration abuse) that really enrages us.

So what does that say about Morsi and Egypt? If you look at the 12 months that Morsi was in office, several of his actions leap out at me. As a caveat, I don't read Arabic and I didn't follow Egypt closely over the last year, so this is just my best take from recent reading. If the facts are different, please share the right ones in the comments.

  • Last August, he announced that he would no longer be bound by restrictions that were placed on the presidency from the earlier military-managed constitutional process. The source of that constitution might be suspect, but a unilateral declaration of non-compliance is not very democratic way to fix it.
  • During the period where Egypt didn't have a working parliament, Morsi declared that he had the authority both administer the country and create new legislation. The second claim was seen as problematic in many circles. A president imposing executive orders is one thing. A president installing permanent (unless later repealed) new laws is quite another.
  • In November 2012, Morsi issued a declaration that, in effect, immunised his actions from any legal challenge. The decree stated that it only applied until a new constitution was ratified, but that level of power would have given him the ability to strongly "guide" the constitutional drafting process. Opponents were concerned that some very bad things could happen.

Was Morsi really trying to dismantle democracy now that he had been elected? Did Egypt just dodge a new era of despotic rule?

Were Morsi's actions just reasonable responses to the chaos that comes with an untested democratic system? Did Egypt bail out of the democratic process when it faced its first crisis?

These questions are not just relevant to Egypt. We could legitimately have asked the similar questions about Chavez in Venezuela and we can ask them now about Erdogan in Turkey. These weren't winners of initial elections, but they were benefits of totally sea-changing elections that changed the political landscapes of their countries. Not quite the same, but similar.

More generally, how do we feel about the potential for democratically elected despots? How far are we prepared to stray from strict adherence to democratic institutions to prevent them from occurring?


Do you think that the threat of an elected despotism justifies the extraordinary events in Egypt?

60%24 votes
15%6 votes
12%5 votes
12%5 votes

| 40 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    Maturity: Doing what you know is right - even though you were told to do it

    by grapes on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 12:52:18 PM PDT

  •  Once again, Hitler was not elected (0+ / 0-)

    He was selected.

    by Paleo on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 12:57:54 PM PDT

  •  At a simple level the question (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, grapes, IreGyre, Be Skeptical

    could be stated as what is the difference between a revolution and a coup.

    Of course revolutions are rebellions that succeed. History is the ultimate judge of political events and that is more or less based on outcomes.

    You are correct that a healthy functioning democracy has a healthy functioning system of interrelated democratic institutions. There is no question that Egypt lacks that. Those take more than a year to develop.

    Whether the military made an essentially constructive more or not will be determined by outcome. It is entirely possible for the situation to get even worse than it was under Morsi. It is also possible for it to get better.

    None of that changes the fact that when there is a constitution and an elected government, forcefully over turning those is a serious and drastic step.  

  •  Free and fair elections are the prerequisite (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Richard Lyon

    for democracy.  They are not all there is to democracy, but they are the sine qua non.

    by Paleo on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:02:46 PM PDT

    •  Repeating free and fair elections? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I would apply a slightly sterner test to the criteria. To me, a single fair election does not seem sufficient proof of democracy. A second fair election (especially if power changes) is huge. A third and fourth pretty much seals the deal.

      Maturity: Doing what you know is right - even though you were told to do it

      by grapes on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:26:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  you lay out the issue well. I don 't think (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    grapes, IreGyre

    there are easy answers.  In addition, it is contested whether Morsi would have ended democracy.  The Egyptian people will decide these questions.

    Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

    by TomP on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:05:22 PM PDT

    •  I think that it is arguable (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      that the Egyptian people will remain in the military's leash.

      •  The 20 or 30 million who (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        grapes, IreGyre

        protested against Morsi are a real force.  What you say is possible but not determined.  And the Egyptian military are part of the Egyptian people,  as is the MB.  

        Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

        by TomP on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:15:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  So you think that the military picked the (0+ / 0-)

        Chief Justice of Egypt's Constitutional Court only to be a lap dog? I don't see it. He and his Court stood up to Morsi every chance they got.

        BTW, the Constitutional Convention that General Washington presided over was not legal under the US Articles of Confederation. It required a significant suspension of disbelief to suppose that the ratification provisions of the Constitution had any legal force before that ratification was publicly accepted. The whole thing was only retroactively legal, and the same will be true of the new Egyptian Constitution.

        A cynic might say

        Treason never doth prosper.
        What's the reason?
        Why, if it prosper
        None dare call it treason.
        All government is originally usurpation, whether by force of arms, or by force of public opinion. But when a clear majority of the public supports giving up many of its own rights in order to deny others the right to tyrannize them, that's what you get. As one might say,
        Wherever you are, there you go.

        Ceterem censeo, gerrymandra delenda est

        by Mokurai on Sat Jul 06, 2013 at 01:20:50 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Ballot box democracy is not the real thing. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Government by the people is still just an aspiration in the U.S.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:41:36 PM PDT

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