ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Fallacy of Liberal Democracy

Sam Noumoff (sam.noumoff@mcgill.ca) served in the 1970s as Director, Centre for East Asian Studies and in the 1980s as Director of the Centre for Developing Area Studies before retiring from McGill University, Canada.

Accommodation on all sides – the left, liberal sections as well as those supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – in Egypt is essential if the society is not to spiral towards sectarian murders. 

The recent Egyptian experience has highlighted the shallow façade of liberal democracy. The most significant issue raised is centered on procedural democracy in which the exercise of the vote is both the necessary and sufficient condition to express the democratic will of the people. Subordinate questions also emerge from the recent events:  

·         What does an electoral mandate entail - is it unreasonable for the victorious to pursue its own agenda unencumbered by demands of those who were defeated?

·         Is it legitimate for a victorious party to exercise control over all expressions of state power-civil-economic-police-military-diplomatic, or are the institutions of the state independent entities, what recently has been referred to as the deep state?

·         Is the concept of “the rule of law” a mask behind which vested interests hide their privilege and embed the status quo?

·         Will those who exercise privilege, voluntarily concede that privilege as a concession to the common good?

·         Can an appeal to the common good come to supersede the regularity of democratic procedure, and if so, who can issue the legitimate call, as all sides employ the same vocabulary?

·         How is political legitimacy determined and by who; is it the ballot box or the street?

·         Must the concept of consensus be embedded in the political culture to the degree that compromise and tolerance of “the other” is the accepted price one must pay for cohabitating in a common state.

·         Is the concept of liberal democracy in conformity with the Egyptian mode of production?

·         Has Mao’s dictum that power come out of the barrel of a gun been validated by Egypt’s recent experience. And if so what are the consequences?

Turning to the political reality on the ground it is clear that the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom & Justice Party, assumed that its electoral victory gave it the mandate to transform the state in accordance with its religious principles. In some measure we must note that the European experience of the struggle between secular princes and religious institutions, which ultimately created a space between the two, is totally absent in the Egyptian historic experience.

The Muslim Brotherhood's ideology and practice

One could make the argument that the style of rule under the Ottoman Empire in practice separated the two spheres, but it is my contention that this was true only in appearance. What the Brothers did was perfectly in conformity with their ideology. This behaviour is perfectly consistent with their experience over recent decades when they were persecuted, and were half underground. Parenthetically a parallel can be drawn with the Lavrenty Beria’s biography of Stalin in Transcaucasia. When an underground movement gains political power it has no patience for incremental change. Some have argued that the Brothers employed the liberal democratic process with the full expectation of destroying it. To this one must pose the following question. As the Brothers have asserted their legitimacy on the basis of an electoral mandate, have they not trapped themselves into abiding by the electoral results, even when the non-Brothers element of society mobilises to turf them out? They have continuously argued that if the society fails to approve of their rule, then they must be defeated in the next election. My speculation is that if they were subsequently defeated they would have claimed fraud. The Brothers’ impatience further resulted in their underestimation of how the Egyptian military would respond to their programme, which while not immediately threatening military interest, was seen by the military as a long term threat, most especially as the Turkish government successfully initiated a case against its former military high command, but it did so after its third successful re-election. It is unclear to me as to what evidence was employed to circulate the belief that general Abdel Fateh al-Sisi was sympathetic to the Brothers, but that was clearly erroneous.

The Brothers, in sum, failed to follow the experience of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice & Development Party in Turkey which waited for successive electoral victories before moving against the military, nor of the Chinese Soviet movement which insured that local Soviets during the revolutionary struggle were never dominated by Communists. It is clear that moving from an underground movement to national rule without the intermediary steps of either multiple electoral victories or experience in local governance is the road to political blunders.

Have the Brothers alienated themselves from the society, as claimed by some? Those who make this argument fail to factor in a part of their history and mobilising strategy which provided socio-economic services which were not existent and were not provided for, by the state. This base has not disappeared and the assumption that they, and only them, must change to re-accommodate themselves to some amorphous new anti-Brothers ethos, I suggest is a fantasy.  

Supporters of the coup, be they liberal or of the left may consciously or not have fallen into the trap of violating a fundamental principle to serve what they consider tactical advantages of the moment. If all Islamicists are lumped into the “terrorist” category, this will all too readily become self-fulfilling. Can/will the military oligarchy find it in its interest to provide the required response to the socio/economic problems facing the society? On the basis of its Hosni Mubarak iteration, the answer is definitively no!

The military’s declared desire to destroy the Brotherhood, in the absence of a programme to genuinely meet the aspirations of the society, will in the final analysis lead to repression of the entire society. Note that under the provisional government, 2/3rds of provincial governors appointed are generals. General al-Sissi wrote: 

If a democracy evolves with different constituencies, there is no guarantee that the police and military forces will align with the emerging ruling parties. (“Egypt’s Tragedy: The Military Dictatorship Returns” -Spiegel Online, linked here )

Accommodation on all sides is essential if the society is not to spiral towards sectarian murders.    I end with the simple question raised by the Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh in a recent blog

I would simply ask those who support the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (a group I obviously do not support) one simple question: how will you have political reconciliation or build a democratic Egypt if you kill, exclude and jail the leaders of the largest organized group in Egypt?

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