08/23/2013 05:24 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Egypt's Legitimacy Dilemma: Who Has the Right to Rule?

Edward Gibbon's reflections from over two centuries ago regarding the defects inherent in military rule seem quite prescient in light of Egypt's recent relapse into martial law: "The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens; but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil constitution."

Of course it would be fair to wonder if the military would be ruling, again, if the Muslim Brotherhood didn't try to, via fiat, Islamicize a country that had been under secular leadership since 1953. It initially seemed the military acted in the best interests of the Egyptian public when they ousted President Mohamed Morsi whose approval ratings had sunk to 28% because of his illiberal decrees and mishandling of the economy.

Legitimacy seemed important to the military chieftains at the time considering they made sure to secure strong popular support before toppling the president, which was evidenced by a petition calling for Morsi's ouster signed by more people than the number of votes he garnered, validating the burgeoning sentiment that the Islamists had "hijacked" the revolution.

That was before the new leaders did some hijacking themselves by killing over 1,000 Morsi supporters within a matter of days. This caused some to question the prudence of the new militocracy, exemplified by the liberal vice president Mohamed ElBaradei who resigned, fled to Vienna and was subsequently charged with "betrayal of trust."

Last June Morsi's rule was initially sanctioned by democratic elections, a typical Weberian rational-legal source of authority, yet he arrogated power to himself beyond the mandate afforded by his slim margin of victory. In addition, inept governance undermined what William Maley refers to as "social-eudaemonic legitimacy," which is contingent on a regime's actual performance in terms of economic stability, provision of basic services and physical safety.

According to some experts emergent regimes of fragile states are tasked with convincing those governed the administration is competent enough to merit "freedom from excessive opposition or violent contestation," a hallmark of legitimacy Egypt's military rulers are finding elusive. Hence popular support may not guarantee the right to rule, as Turkey's leaders recently discovered, if the regime cannot even secure the passive compliance of the opposition. The "tyranny of the majority" can delegitimize a regime, as John Stuart Mill argued, if it grossly violates individual liberties and fails to protect its citizens from majoritarian despotism.

Legitimacy implies a relationship between rulers and ruled that is substantially grounded in consent as opposed to power that derives primarily from coercion. The military's use of brute force to crush the Muslim Brotherhood could put at risk any legitimacy initially granted. Not to mention, forcefully disbanding the party and prohibiting them from running for office could fuel fierce opposition and strengthen the forces of militant Islam.

But even if the military loses the public trust does legitimacy matter if the regime has a sufficient monopoly on force to check popular opposition? Totalitarian regimes have employed forms of non-legitimate domination quite effectively for lengthy periods of time, although it has made for a precarious state of rule that is often unsustainable. Journalist Frida Ghitis contends that the military may retain power without the "seal of popular acceptability," but Egyptian society is bound to remain unstable. The fall of Mubarak made clear that the consent of the governed in Egypt is now a decisive ingredient in regime staying power, lending credence to Rousseau's maxim that, "The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty."

Then there is the question of international legitimacy. Has the U.S. tacitly endorsed Egypt's military by resisting categorizing the ouster of Morsi as a coup? Washington has been reluctant to do so because by law the U.S. must terminate aid to any regime that forcefully overthrows another. Yet U.S. defense officials have been unable to leverage the funding to persuade the Egyptian military to show restraint. Meanwhile, the implicit legitimization of the regime is likely staining America's global reputation. A legal expert from New York succinctly captured the American quandary for me in an email: "If we demonstrate we are willing to transparently redefine reality solely to ensure aid continues, what incentive do the recipients have to listen to anything we say?"

Instead of making any effort to unite the country, heal the ideological divide and form an inclusive government, Morsi went to great lengths to issue invidious radical decrees that undermined every democratic principle imaginable and undermined the Muslim Brotherhood's credibility. Shortly after Morsi's fall David Brooks maintained that although Egypt might revert to "a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite," the coup was still a blessing because "at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office."

On the other hand, legitimizing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has proven to be counterproductive to American interests, as the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan recently underlined, asserting that "across the ideological spectrum" one of the major lessons derived from the 9/11 attacks was that "dictatorships helped breed terrorism..."