The post-dictatorship system emerging in Egypt has just experienced its first political crisis.
The newly-elected President Muhammad Mursi and the military junta have clashed over the theoretically dissolved parliament amid talk of coup d’etat and unrest.
Some commentators have seized the opportunity to declare the end of hope for democracy in Egypt. We are told that the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that backed Mursi in the presidential election, is plotting to impose a new despotism based on Shariah (Islamic jurisprudence). Talking of an “Islamist conspiracy”, these commentators urge the army to stage a coup.
At the other end of the spectrum, some claim that the military are using the crisis as an excuse to prolong their power.
However, in Egypt, the sky has not fallen.
What we have witnessed is in accordance with the grammar of a new political system which may or may not evolve into a democracy.
Let us see what happened:
– President Mursi announced that he did not accept a decision by the constitutional court to dissolve the newly elected parliament.
Mursi was acting in accordance with his role as President of the Republic, setting the agenda as a president should. He was making use of political legitimacy won in a free election.
– The court, for its part, exercised judicial legitimacy insisting that its decision to dissolve the parliament was legal.
– The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was exercising the legitimacy bestowed on it by conjecture as interim legislature and, thus, custodian of the rule of law.
However, knowing it could not defy the President, SCAF ended its siege of the parliament building to allow the assembly to convene a brief session.
– The “dissolved” parliament exercised electoral legitimacy by staging a debate to challenge the court’s decision. However, it, too, was not prepared to upgrade the crisis into a drama.
– Meanwhile, political activists were demonstrating in Tahrir Square, exercising legitimacy as free citizen.
In other words, everyone was doing what each should do in a free society. Different legitimacies were clashing in an open atmosphere.
In a society where politics had been a matter of conspiracies, secret deals and Machiavellian manoeuvres, the idea of decisions as the synthesis of public debate by various organs of the state may be hard to accept.
It could take years for Egyptians to get used to a system in which no individual or institution dictates to everyone.
What lessons could we draw from the events?
One lesson is that, far from being a cause for anxiety, the clash of legitimacies could be creative.
The president should set the agenda. At the same time, other organs of the state, and ordinary citizens, should challenge him when they deem it necessary. That would provide the creative tension needed in a vibrant political system.
There has been much talk about the rule of law, something of paramount importance in a civilised society.
However, we must not confuse the rule of law with rule by lawyers.
To be sure, regardless of its provenance, the court must play its role in making sure everyone obeys the law. But this does not give the court the right to transform itself into an Egyptian version of the “Guardians’ Council” in Iran’s despotic system.
We don’t want to replace a dictatorship of generals with the dictatorship of judges.
Last month, the United States experienced a similar crisis when the Supreme Court ruled that President Barack Obama’s mandatory healthcare law did not violate the Constitution. There, too, we had a clash of presidential, legislative and judicial legitimacies. (Unlike the crisis in Egypt, the military was not involved!)
I have been taken to task for stating that Egypt is on the right track and that it is in everyone’s interest to give Mursi a chance before judging him. Since I regard religion and politics as separate, though culturally interconnected, spheres of public life I insist that Mursi be judged for what he does and not his beliefs.
As far as I am concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood remains an anti-democratic movement with dreams for despotism in the name of religion.
However, the good news is that clean elections have exposed the narrowness of the Brotherhood’s popular support base. And that has forced the Brotherhood to abandon some of its illusions and seek a place in a pluralist society.
The Brotherhood’s ideology is incompatible with democracy. But democracy is not incompatible with the Brotherhood’s ideology. In a pluralist society people are free to believe and propagate whatever they like as long as they do not try to impose it on others by force and intimidation.
Fear of a Brotherhood takeover should not be used as an excuse for returning to the disastrous dictatorship imposed in 1952.
Egyptians will learn to live in a democracy, and how to make it work, by doing it. Inevitably, they will make mistakes and suffer setbacks. The only way to learn to swim is by jumping in the water. Those who claim that Arabs are doomed to live under despots, and that Bashar al-Assad must be protected as an endangered species, are high on nostalgia, the opiate of the defeated in history.