Friday, July 5, 2013

A 'legitimate' coup in Egypt?

H.A. Hellyer tells us that the Egyptian army's coup had popular legitimacy:
"The most honest and accurate way to describe this was a popularly called-for, and thus popularly legitimate, coup."
He seems to connect this claim to crowds:
"... no other option was going to be acceptable to the crowds that came out onto the streets except his removal."
The notion of popular legitimacy seems very popular these days.  Maybe it has popular legitimacy.  But the kindest thing one can say about Hellyer's use of it is that he is an expert on the Middle East, not on legitimacy.

Here's the claim as I understand it.  There was a really huge crowd, which according to rough unofficial estimates had to be so very large that, while it wasn't actually a majority of the adult population, had to represent that majority.  It called for something.  Therefore that something was 'popularly legitimate'.

Apparently 'popularly legitimate' means that the something called for was ok.  'Legitimacy' has to have some force like that.  It's not just descriptive, like "real popular at that moment".  So we get
If it's endorsed by a huge crowd representing a majority, it's in some sense legitimate, ok.
As they say, what could possibly go wrong?  If it's endorsed, it's legitimate.  Doesn't matter what 'it' is.  Endorsement confers legitimacy on whatever it is that's endorsed.

Really?  So if the huge crowd endorsed slavery, or the torture and execution of dissidents, or ethnic cleansing, these endorsed items would have 'popular legitimacy'.  Absolutely, according to Hellyer's rule, and he's got a right to define the term as he likes.  But we can still ask if that has the slightest, tiniest tendency to make these things ok.

The examples are hardly far-fetched.  At many times and places, from the Confederate States of America (which itself would very likely have had 'popular legitimacy') to 19th century Ukraine and its pogroms, to 21st century Burma, it wouldn't be too hard to get the requisite huge crowd to endorse these things.  But why go that far?  The trouble with huge crowd endorsements is, it's never too clear exactly what's being endorsed.  What was endorsed in Egypt, on June 30th?

Not just any sort of leadership change, says Hellyer, but a coup.  Suppose he's right.  That means at a minimum that Egypt's military, embodied in SCAF, would take power, abrogate the constitution and depose the president.  You'd also pretty well have to expect that there would be a lot of arrests of the Islamists who had held 'power' (they didn't really, since the military, police and 'deep state' did pretty much as they pleased).  That's what happens in a coup and, as is so often the case, we'd have to expect that the police would be extensively involved.

Now it's beyond the slightest controversy that the Egyptian army and police have a record of murder and torture stretching back decades.  It's beyond controversy that their independence from oversight, well-nigh absolute before the fall of Mubarak, has only increased.  That also means, of course, that they haven't been subjected to any reform.  We might add that no force in Egypt has shown the slightest ability to restrain them.  From all this any even vaguely rational person would have the strongest reason to suspect that this 'popularly legitimate' coup would come with a good dose of torture and murder.  Unless the crowd was borderline insane or mentally deficient - which might possibly bear on the legitimacy thing - it would have to expect that the coup to include this spate of torture and murder just as firmly as it would have to expect that there would be troops moving through Cairo.

Well if I endorse a cancer treatment that I have every reason to expect includes excising a tumor, I can be understood to endorse excising the tumor.  Indeed dictators often justify their torture and murder using exactly this comparison.  But in the case of the coup, Hellyer tells us, endorsement confers 'popular legitimacy'.  So someone could certainly argue that the torture and murder had popular legitimacy as well.

Well, maybe something did go wrong after all.  Maybe, if we want a notion of popular legitimacy that makes something ok, we need to consider not just the endorsing but what's endorsed.  The notion will always have problems because what a huge crowd endorses is never entirely clear. But when Mubarak was overthrown, it wasn't a matter of huge crowds who'd already been told by the Ministry of Interior that it was open season on the headquarters of the governing party.  Though some common soldiers broke ranks, it wasn't a police and army love-in with Egyptian flags dropped from military helicopters.  In fact it wasn't a matter of one huge crowd celebrating on one security-forces-approved night.

It was a drawn-out desperate struggle in which young and old died in the streets under the fire of police snipers and agonized in army torture sessions.  So despite the chants of 'the people and the army, one hand', it's reasonable to conclude that the huge crowd wasn't endorsing the replacement of Mubarak by a murdering, torturing military junta: "down, down, with military rule".  On the contrary it seems the crowds were demanding an end to such practices and a measure of freedom - whatever that meant to whoever demanded it - for everyone, secularists and Islamists alike.  They weren't endorsing the destruction at gunpoint of a democratically elected though largely impotent government.

The different objectives of the crowds can't just be ignored when evaluating the legitimacy of their demands.  If Hellyer wants to argue that Morsi himself lacked popular legitimacy, he is welcome to do so.  But his argument for the coup - no, it wasn't just an 'analysis' - relies on an idea of popular legitimacy that would be disgusting if it weren't so absurd.  Maybe he should reconsider his whitewash.


  1. There are 3 types of legitimacy and Morsi had none of those:

    a) Charismatic legitimacy -- the ruler has the personal approval of a majority (he barely won an election against a weaker candidate).

    b) Policy legitimacy -- does what the people want. Which we've talked about. Morsi consistently refused to build consensus for his policies.

    c) Traditional legitimacy -- not relevant to a government this young.

    Best case 1/2 of (a) and 1/2 of (b).

    Conversely let's look at the army:

    a) Traditional legitimacy -- The Egyptian army has been around for generations and is well respected in its role. The army draws broadly and has the most to lose from a deeply divided population. The army perforce must be the arbitrator between a government and huge sections of the population who refuse to live under the laws of that government any longer.

    b) Policy legitimacy -- A huge chunk if not a majority of Egyptians believed that Morsi's policies of division were bad for Egypt and wanted another institution to step in.

    c) Charismatic legitimacy -- None AFAIK.

    Worst case all of (a) at least 1/2 of (b).

    So on a scale from 0-3 Morsi gets a 1 at best and a the army a 1.5 at worst. Neither is great but I think considering the army more legitimate is reasonable.

  2. They weren't endorsing the destruction at gunpoint of a democratically elected though largely impotent government.

    Yes they were. We know this because when it happened there were fireworks and cheers. The crowd was elated. The Egyptian people were excited. The Islamists did everything possible to make it clear to the NSF that they had no options but to side with anti-government forces. Morsi did everything he could to alienate people from his government. He was terrible president at a time when Egypt probably needed at least a good one. This is not hard to understand. Would you want your wife, your sisters your children to have to wear a veil? Would you want to be governed by sharia law. It isn't at all hard to understand why someone would prefer the military to that.

    As for the behavior of the police during the Mubarak years and before I agree. They were bad. But if I had to choose between say the government of Mubarak's Egypt, a murderous police force, and the Muslim Brotherhood for whom I'd rather govern me it isn't even a hard decision. I'm throwing in with Mubarak in a heartbeat. The MB by generations of struggle had earned enough trust from liberal Egyptians that they made the opposite call. Morsi threw that away during his year by convincing everyone that an Islamic government would be as bad as their worst fears.

    The Islamist constitution written by 2 parties and passed over the opposition of most of the other is going to be abrogated? Good! That constitution was a farce on the very notion of constitution democracy. I said so at the time and stand by it completely now. Anything passed that way doesn't deserve to be classified with real constitutions.

    Take yours for example. It opens with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I don't agree with everything that's in there but those rights and freedoms represent hard won compromises by the Canadian people about how they would like to be governed. Even for aboriginal populations, which are a population subject to your laws but not approving of your system you bend over backwards to make the government as innocuous as possible. Can you imagine anything similar to section 35 for the Egyptian Copts?

  3. He was a bad guy, who ran a bad government with bad polices. He was also an incompetent guy who ran a corrupt government that failed to successfully implement many important policies. I really don't understand why you spend so much time defending him against his liberal critics. What is good about Morsi for a liberal?

    Even if the choice were SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood, I still think SCAF is better. But we know that isn't the choice. SCAF has already run a round of elections. This time they understand their mistake in the previous round and will do so with a structure that forces compromise. Maybe something like a bicameral legislature designed so that the Islamic parties control one house and the NSF the other... Good! That's what Egypt needs. What is so bad about SCAF assume direct control and reorganize the civilian political system to better represent the population on social and economic issues?

    Yes it would have been good if the first democratic government of Egypt hadn't sucked. It would have been much better for everyone if Morsi had been a George Washington, Charles Grey a Emperor Taishō. He had the opportunity but he just didn't want to govern Egypt, in the end he rose above his level. As a result the army is having to pick up the pieces.

    Egypt had a dictatorship followed by a temporary military government followed by a truly wretched democracy and now a short return to military government hopefully to be followed by a good democratic government. There is nothing illegitimate to people tossing out their elected leaders when for reasons of circumstance they do badly. I had the same arguments when I lived in California and most of the rest of the country believed we should be stuck with Governor Gray Davis for four years because he had managed to exploit flaws in California's election laws. We tossed him out after 10 months and life went on fine.