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David Mednicoff

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Tentative Lessons From, Instead of for, Egypt Today

Posted: 07/02/2013 1:27 pm

Following perhaps the largest national protest in global history, an enormous, diverse group of Egyptians awaits the political results of the rapid erosion of legitimacy of the government of Mohammed Morsi whom they elected very narrowly one year ago.

Will the unpopular, ineffective and divisive President Morsi resign, or will the Egyptian army oust him? If the army steps in, will they usher in a second attempt at a transition to a freely chosen government, one this time that is more attentive to minority rights, political accountability and governmental efficacy? Or will the army instead hold on to power, fulfilling the darkest fears of some of an Egyptian counter-revolution?

I don't know the answers to these questions and I'm reluctant to opine about them, given an understandable backlash of Egyptians in the middle of these events against Western pundits taking a clear stand, or worse, a neo-imperial tutorial role, on what these folks should do.

Instead, I want to ask the reverse question. What can we in countries like the US learn from the mass Egyptian mobilization against their first elected president? Here, so far, I believe are the top five lessons we can learn from our political comrades in Cairo and elsewhere in one of the world's oldest nations.

1. The US, with its formal democratic institutions, is not necessarily a political model for the world.

The US makes a big deal of the importance of elections, and our institutions that allow for peaceful transition of leadership and popular engagement in politics are indeed important. At the same time, outsiders also know well of American political polarization, gridlock, disproportionately powerful wealthy individuals and interest groups, and policy entrenchment. It can be hard to hear this, but US, and even more broadly Western, representative democracy, may not per se be everyone else's top political model. This helps make sense of the dismissal of many Egyptians, of the argument that was important to retain the Mosri government, because a small majority in a run-off election chose him, after he over-reached his authority in a non-democratic manner.

2. Elected leaders are not necessarily legitimate.

As Americans are also pondering once more in the wake of the NSA scandals, elected leaders may take actions that seem to exceed their authority or basic premises of democratic rule. In long-standing governments, there are procedures and institutions to investigate and, hopefully, to correct such actions of political over-reach (see 4. below). Where there are not, citizens may well choose to remake their government, doubting that the increasingly authoritarian style of the leader they (narrowly) elected can be counteracted from within the system.

3. Appointed leaders are not necessarily illegitimate.

It is easy to get worked-up about the apparent hypocrisy of some countries supporting popular revolt against dictatorship while refusing themselves to allow for free elections for leaders. Yet, if we know that individuals and institutions in electoral democracies can act, or even be, anti-democratic, why should it be so strange to believe that non-elected leaders can enjoy popular legitimacy? There is a qualitative difference between a regime that survives through brutal repression like Assad's of Syria, and one that has a popular unelected leader and quasi-participatory institutions like the Moroccan monarchy. What is that difference? Some degree of popular accountability.

It's true that this difference is difficult enough to be sure of, let alone measure, that caution is always warranted in embracing any government's claim to legitimacy. Yet using the election of a leader as the only sign of whether a political system has popular support undervalues the power of Egyptians' recent mass mobilization to the contrary.

4. Institutions take time to develop popular respect.

In Egypt, courts and the military seem to enjoy the most respect of the diverse individuals who gave up on the Morsi government. Those are also the most well-established, continuous institutions of government in the country. When confused about how their government can solve increasing economic problems and social divisiveness, it is not surprising that Egyptians might turn to the institutions they have known in past decades, instead of the ones that have been established in the past year. If those of us outside of Egypt are truly concerned about what the return of the army might mean for Egyptians' democratic hopes, maybe we should turn this question back and consider whether our own respect for particular institutions is actually warranted, or itself a product of habit in some cases.

5. Performance and minority inclusion matter.

Egyptians united to push out Morsi are united in what angers them. In addition to the issue of accountability above, they have been frustrated with the Morsi government's performance (particularly with respect to the economy), and the increasing wedges it has driven between its Muslim Brotherhood base and everyone else. So we don't learn much about Islam or religious parties from what's been happening in Egypt. Rather, we see that governments can mobilize opposition when they don't seem to tackle central problems of their population or they try to rule from a very narrow base. Elected democratic systems, perhaps most notably in Brazil, Turkey and some parts of Europe, are hardly immune to popular citizen mobilization that can follow from this lesson.

While we watch events in Egypt with deep interest, let's also hope the Egyptians can continue to provide the world with their own lessons about politics.