Egypt – is it an illegitimate military coup?

2013-07-08 12:14

Most of the debate about the developments in Egypt – also here in Turkey at the moment – is focused on the question whether it is an illegitimate military coup or a legitimate popular coup? Most of the debate is rather emotional and mainly motivated by the political interests from which the arguments are launched. The argument here is that at least two main approaches can be discerned in the situation.

The first approach proceeds from the view that Pres. Morsi was elected and therefore he received a mandate to govern for the term of his office. His rule is therefore by definition democratic and legitimate and any intervention in his office will violate his legitimacy and will undemocratically interfere in the electoral preference of the voters. Its implication is that elections are the source or supreme authority of legitimacy. This perspective relies on the liberal notion of procedural democracy applying the assumption that if a proper procedure was followed the outcome must be regarded as fair and therefore as democratic. The same logic also dictates that only a similar procedure can change or undone the original procedure.

Though in this approach an election is regarded as the supreme determination of democracy, in parliamentary systems with a Prime Minister and not a directly-elected President, the government can be removed by a parliamentary motion of no confidence before the end of the government’s term of office. It still relies on the liberal notion of a constitutional procedure but it does not insist on an election’s supreme authority to determine a government’s term of office. If it becomes unpopular before the next election it can be removed.

Slightly less well-defined is the notion of a popular recall of an elected representative. Several constitutions or electoral systems allow for constituencies to recall their elected representatives before the end of their term of office but it also depends on some or other form of voting. In both instances elections cannot protect an unpopular government or representative.

The complication is in the case of directly-elected Presidents. Constitutions don’t provide for their removal by a motion of no confidence or a popular recall. (The only possibility is impeachment for unconstitutional conduct but not for loss of popularity). Presidents are not accountable to their parliaments, because they are not elected by them – South Africa, Botswana and Angola are a few exceptions. Presidents’ constituencies are the voters and they must theoretically account directly to them. But there are no constitutional or procedural mechanisms for voters to remove an unpopular President or one that is acting undemocratically. In the absence of such a mechanism, the pro-Morsi argument will be that any intervention against him is unconstitutional and therefore counter-democratic.

The complication with the emphasis on elections is that not all elections are democratic and they don’t necessarily signify a democratic presence. Several instances of undemocratic multiparty elections can be mentioned, including those in Tunisia and Egypt before 2011. Democratic elections can also produce undemocratic consequence, like the democratic election of Hitler. A more specific complication is that both Mubarak and Ben Ali were elected Presidents; the international community accepted them and recognized their governments. In Egypt parliamentary elections were held a few months before the January 25 uprising and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party won it convincingly. The question therefore is: what made the 2011 uprising internationally acceptable while they also accepted the election results shortly before it? Did the public popular demonstrations in 2011 change the international community’s insistence on elections?

Egypt is a member of the African Union and therefore the Union has a responsibility to make a pronouncement on the current developments. In 2007 the AU adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which includes condemnation of “unconstitutional changes of government” such as military coups. Membership of such a member will be suspended and it can also impose sanctions on the unconstitutional regime. Hence, Egypt’s membership was suspended by the Peace and Security Council on 5 July 2013.

The AU’s yardstick is constitutionalism and not specifically elections. We also know that constitutionalism is not necessarily always democratic in nature. The difference between elections and constitutionalism is a slight difference in emphasis but the Union had no other option than condemning the events in Egypt as unconstitutional. However, the events in 2011 known as the ‘Arab spring’ were also unconstitutional in the absence of a regime change by electoral means. The African Charter could not provide then the same guidance, because the international community accepted the regime changes as legitimate. What is the difference between 2011 and 2013: most say it is the elected status of Pres. Morsi (disregarding the fact that Mubarak was also elected and accepted by the international community).

The first approach therefore concluded that Egypt experienced a military coup and that it was illegitimate. The governments in Tunisia, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood agreed with it. The AU also agreed that it was unconstitutional.

The second approach is more focused on legitimacy than on elections. It would agree that a government’s legitimacy is initially determined by an election but thereafter it has to be sustained by governing in the public and general interest. Accordingly, an electoral mandate cannot supersede the requirement for governance in the public interest. The supreme authority to apportion legitimacy to anyone is, according to this approach, located in the popular will, and legitimacy has to be sustained over the entire governing period. Legitimacy is not gained only at the point of elections and electoral results are not sufficient to provide such legitimacy for the entire term of office. Elections, consequently, must be seen as a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It provides a mandate to a government and it provides an opportunity for voters and citizens to make choices regularly in an organized and structured way. But it does not give a guarantee to a government that it will be untouchable for the next four or five years. The presence of the constitutional options of motions of no confidence or recall attests to it. The problem, however, is that no similar options exist in the case of elected Presidents. Hence, the argument is that the only available option to respond to declining presidential legitimacy is popular demonstrations by the voters. Most democratic constitutions guarantee the right to non-violent protest but it is questioned whether constitutionalism allows for protest-induced change of governments. Constitutions normally allow Presidents to resign before the end of their term of office, without specifying the type of pressure for such resignation. When the pressure is applied only or primarily by the military it is normally regarded as a direct or indirect military coup and therefore unconstitutional. In the case of Egypt the question is whether it will still be within the constitutional domain if the pressure came from a combination of protestors and the military? The Egyptian military justify their actions as not a coup on the basis that it was a popular uprising that clearly demonstrated the government’s loss of legitimacy and that their involvement was the same when Mubarak was ousted.

The visuals on 3 July looked like that of a coup: a military General announcing a suspension of the constitution and placing the main government leaders under house arrest. Does the promise of a multiparty and technocratic government endorsed by the leaders of the two main religious movements and by Mohammed ElBaradei underplay the military dimension of the events?

The second approach concludes that it was a popular coup similar to the one in 2011 and that Pres. Morsi’s elected status cannot protect him against constitutional popular protest when he started to act undemocratically and not in the public interest.

The Egyptian developments are not easy to analyse and hence the intense public debate about its true nature. It appears to be a combination of a military and a popular coup. Especially the military’s suspension of the constitution and the leaders’ house arrest are very problematic and undermine the coup’s legitimacy. The liberal approach will also reject appointment of a non-elected technocratic government – however the same happened recently in democratic countries like Greece and Italy during their political crises. The military were not involved in those decisions but both were governed by unelected governments without any international punitive responses. A similar compromise was made by the AU in Mali after the latest coup when an interim, non-elected, civilian multiparty government was accepted. It means that the international norm is actually more flexible than presented in the case of Egypt.

Four comparable examples can be used to determine the significance of the Egyptian events as well as the responses to them. In February 1998 the Prime Minister of the governing Refah Party, Necmettin Erbakan, was forced by the Turkish military to resign and to call for parliamentary elections without much popular pressure or demonstrations. Erbakan was, however, regarded as the father figure of political Islam in Turkey and his party became a risk for the Kemalist secularism of the military. The international community responded to this “post-modern coup” with mild criticism but no punitive measures against Turkey. The Egyptian military is similarly regarded as the main guarantor of secularism and therefore share the same status with their Turkish counterparts.

In March 2009 the Malagasy President, Marc Ravalomanana, was forced by the military to resign after some protest marches led by his political opponent, Andry Rajoelina. The presidential powers were transferred to a Military Council which immediately transferred them to Rajoelina. The international community denounced the events in Madagascar as a military coup, because it was clearly choreographed by the military (and supported by the French) together with Rajoelina and local business groups. The military was, however, seen as the main power-holders and that it was not a spontaneous popular uprising. The AU and SADC declared it an unconstitutional change of government and the EU and USA imposed sanctions against Madagascar.

In the Maldives, on the other hand, Pres. Mohamed Nasheed was forced by the military early in 2012 to resign after a series of popular protests against the government’s poor management of the economy. He was replaced by his deputy president. No international condemnation followed.

Finally, the Turkish demonstrations in 2013 happen in the context of an elected governing party (AK Party) governing for almost ten years and receiving convincing majorities in every election. The electoral mandate of the government is therefore difficult to challenge. It also produced significant economic results for the formal economy over the past ten years, becoming the 17th biggest GDP in the world but with a per capita GDP similar to South Africa’s. The demonstrators are a combination of liberal secularists, national secularists, socialist secularists, human rights activities and lawyers, journalists for free speech, Kurdish nationalists and Alevis who feel marginalized and also upset by Turkey’s role in the Syrian war. In general it is understood as opposition against the AKP’s political Islam, its promotion of Sunni dominance and social conservatism which coincide with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s. In simplified rhetorical terms Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rejected Taksim Square as Turkey’s Tahrir Square but maybe the latest Tahrir Square is in some respects Egypt’s Taksim Square.

The latest events in Egypt have serious implications for all elected governments, because it creates the possibility for an elected government to be legitimately removed by non-electoral means. It removes from them the fundamental argument that as elected governments they are per definition legitimate and that any challenge to them is therefore illegitimate. The Egyptian experience is emphasizing the fact that legitimacy is not only the product of procedural electoral fairness but also depends on ongoing quality government in the interest of society as a whole. It implies that governments are not only expected to convince the voters periodically to gain their support and that a mandate does not only depend on a simple majority, but that that support must be maintained throughout their term of office and must also reach out to the minority.

The Egyptian events are symptomatic of higher expectations that a government’s accountability must be in tune with the popular will of more than simply an electoral majority. It could be seen in the context of a global trend in which formal politics and its institutions are losing credibility – some calls it “anti-politics” – in favour of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, the populist movements in Europe, support for WikiLeaks and even the Tea Party Movement in its origin form. The significance of Egypt is thus much more than its national political implications.


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