Sunday, December 9, 2012

Freedom versus democracy in Egypt

In the revolution of January 25 - February 11, the demands seemed clear.  There was a cry for freedom and a cry for the fall of the old régime - Mubarak, his cronies, his party, and his allies in the security forces.    There was no cry for democracy.   Why spell it out?  doesn't democracy walk hand in hand with freedom?   If you want freedom and the fall of the old régime, isn't it obvious that democracy is your goal?

If these questions seem rhetorical, it's because the world has sucked up a key tenet of American ideology:  that democracy and political freedom are for all practical purposes the same thing.   Not only the media but virtually the whole of political science and philosophy have piled obfuscation upon obfuscation to make this identification work.   But for Egypt's secular liberals it doesn't work at all, and the aftermath of the revolution has made this brutally clear.

Democracy, obfuscation aside, is government  by the people.   Government by the people has, since at least the 17th Century, been understood as majority rule.   So democracy - given a broad enough electorate - is majority rule.   And everyone who speaks of democracy will tell you that real-world democracies 'aren't perfect'.   There will be some voting irregularities, redistricting issues, violation of media advertising rules, some dirty tricks.    This isn't considered enough to invalidate a popular mandate.   That would take something like imprisoning candidates, shutting down TV stations, massive voter fraud, widespread attacks on polls.   Otherwise, getting a majority confers democratic legitimacy.

What then of freedom?  It can be collective, or individual.   Collective freedom is indeed embodied in democracy:  it consists in a people running its own affairs.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could claim to favor collective freedom.   But this is not at all the sort of freedom associated with secular liberalism.   Secular liberals believe in individual freedom.   That normally means civil liberties, which protect individual thought and expression.

Contrary to American ideology, individual freedom is not democratic.   It's anti-democratic as its clearest advocate, John Stuart Mill,  was well aware.   It bears no relationship to collective freedom:  a people running its own affairs may decide that individuals should have lots of freedom, or very little.   People almost never speak of collective freedom as anything but democracy, and I'll follow that practice.  I'll take 'freedom' to mean 'individual freedom',  a reference to  the rights enshrined in liberal values - freedom of speech and religion, for instance.

It turns out that in the January 25th revolution everyone was opposed to the old régime, but probably for different reasons.   It looks like some wanted individual freedom and some, collective freedom.   In the shorthand of contemporary politics: some wanted freedom, and others democracy.   The ones who wanted freedom included intellectuals, middle class urban youth, non-conformists of various stamps, progressively-minded members of the élite who deplored what one observer called 'the stalled society'.   The ones who wanted democracy included the poor, who thought their own parties and elected representatives would be a lot less likely to shaft them.   Of course the lines weren't sharply drawn, but they were discernible.

The division emerged when elections brought Islamists to power, first in Parliament, then to the Presidency.   The liberal secularists who wanted freedom rightly saw this as a threat.    But their response suggests that they were (and still are)  caught in the 'freedom is democracy'  mindset.   First they pretended the election was invalid because of minor irregularities.   Then they were upset that Parliament, as was its right, stuffed the Constitutional Assembly with Islamists.   There were other sources of liberal outrage, most notably Morsi's assault on the judiciary.    The liberals called this anti-democratic and then, dictatorial, an accusation which lost force when Morsi rescinded its most 'dictatorial' parts.

This accusation had little basis to start with.   It was based on the seemingly democratic but actually anti-democratic belief that any institutions other than those created by the elections have some sort of political legitimacy.   They didn't and don't.    Democratic legitimacy comes only from popular will and is conferred only on elected representatives or the institutions they create.   From a democratic standpoint, only the president and parliament had such legitimacy.   Invoking the judiciary as a check on presidential or parliamentary power only makes sense if the judiciary is the product of democratic procedures within a framework of democratic institutions.   Egypt's judiciary is nothing of the kind.   Morsi's decrees usurped nothing.   They simply made plain the political fact that the judiciary had no legitimate authority.    Perhaps the judges were decent and right,  perhaps Morsi is evil and wrong, but that didn't make his actions the least bit undemocratic.

There is also nothing undemocratic about the disinclination of Parliament to give liberals a substantial say in the Constitutional Assembly.   Elected representatives are supposed to follow what they judge to be in the best interests of the electorate, not to accommodate the views of all segments of the electorate.   Democracy, to repeat, is nothing more than  rule by the people.  It's 'narrowly majoritarian', to use the expression favored by those who want it to be something else.  It doesn't have to be good, just, inclusive, progressive or tolerant.   Maybe the people, the majority, don't want it to be.

The problem this raises for liberals doesn't reduce to Mubarak redux.   Perhaps they thought they were for freedom and democracy, but they have shown themselves to be against democracy because what they really want is freedom.   Nothing unreasonable or unjustified about that: democracy, properly understood, isn't all it's cracked up to be.    But not admitting it, not even recognizing it, doesn't seem to have served the liberals well.   Their polemics are full of bogus claims about dictatorship,  and, what is worse, pretenses that they are the innocent victims of violence rather than perpetrators as well.  It's not clear why this talk can be expected to expand their political base.  Their allies of convenience have become the partisans of the old régime, without whom the liberals have no chance of overcoming democracy.   They needn't be told, though, to be careful of what they wish for.

What's the alternative?   To convince enough of the majority that liberals will do better by them than the Islamists.   This probably doesn't mean promising more civil liberties!   It probably means demonstrating a real commitment to improving the lives of the poor.   In other words it means doing what brought the Islamists to power in the first place.   There don't seem to be any shortcuts to acquiring popular support, and allying with the felool has apparently made Morsi's supporters even more distrustful of the liberals.   Fighting for freedom in a democracy is no easier than doing so in a dictatorship -just different.


  1. I couldn't agree more!

  2. I still think you are conflating democracy and majoritarianism. Barack Obama won 3% of the vote more than Mitt Romney, that given him no more ability to draft and modify constitutional amendments than I have. Even in 2009-10 when Obama had a solid majority in the House 60 out of 100 senators the 40 Republican senators were able to hold him back. As do governors and state legislators. American democracy is based on an interlocking series of checks and balances to avoid majoritarianism. As the expression goes, "There are four boxes to be used in the defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order."

    Morsi has consistently acted in ways to try and build a narrow victory into unlimited power. Your assessment is that he has a solid majority but I look at the elections and see both the Islamist party and the anti-Islamist coalition that is forming in the 40-60% range. Two political parties, presenting two different sets of policies.

    We'll know in 4 days if Morsi can get this constitution over the 50% threshold. But whether he does or doesn't you can't effectively govern a country where 40+% of the population hates the government, wants entirely different polices and seeks to undermine the state. Morsi's people are not going to have 100% of the police, the DAs (or whatever the Egyptian equivalent is) the judges... If they want to be able to enforce they are going to need something like 85% of the population to believe that they would rather see state institutions succeed than fail.

    Morsi is going to need to learn to compromise. It is entirely possible that Egypt is going to have a socially conservative party which has strong support of the poor. To continue the American analogy, something like pre-1964 Democrats. And they are going to have a socially moderate party which has support of the old guard business something like the pre-1964 Republicans. It is entirely possible that they way the liberal party gets support from the poor is from opposition to Islamic law in practice. Women who want access to birth control or if Morsi really pushes it, watch a stoning for adultery, and decide to vote liberal.

    The battle in Egypt may not be over economics, the parties seem to similar on these issues. The coalition that has formed: Leftists, Nasrists, socialists, communists, Christians, liberals strikes me as a good coalition. It also may never be a coalition capable of winning the trust of a highly socially conservative poor.

  3. Anyway so given that I reject the idea that winning 52% of the vote gives one absolute unlimited power, or that this in any sense is democracy. Lets talk political strategy for the anti-Islamist ( leftists, Nasrists, socialists, communists, Christians, liberals) coalition. Right now they are no formal checks and balances in Egyptian law. If there were what Morsi was doing wouldn't be so dangerous to democracy. Morsi and the Islamists intend to formalize the current situation, create a state where if you get 50%+1 you get unlimited power to do whatever you want. In particular their goal seems to be to force a huge percentage of the population to essentially convert to conservative Islam and live under a rather oppressive form of Sharia law based on religious views they don't share.

    It is the job of the opposition party, to try and thwart the governing party when they act in a narrow majoritarian sense. It is their duty to their constituents to make sure that Morsi fails in his objectives. Even if Morsi is able to implement the law for a strictly majoritarian Islamic state, they should be making sure he's crawling over glass every step of the way in terms of getting this law to be effectual. That is they need to treat Morsi the same way they would treat him if he had won 30% of the vote and not 52%. They need to give Morsi intent on majoritarianism a simple choice:

    a) He will be able to issue law that has little practical effect because he can't get the consensus cooperation of the broader society needed to successfully implement law.

    b) He needs to create law that are capable of creating a consensus.

    The opposition needs to look for opportunities to break parts of his coalition off. For example if Morsi still has demonstrations in the street in January, the bond market from which Egypt is borrowing to fund their 10% of GDP debt is going to be freaked. Morsi is either to have to:

    1) Make military concessions to western interests which his Salafist partners will hate.
    2) Make economic concessions to western business interest which the poor will hate.
    3) Drastically cut the budget which the poor will hate.

    etc... And ultimately one of three things will happen.

    i) The Islamist party will get to around 70% and be able to effectively govern without the opposition.
    ii) The Islamist party will lose a few percentage points of support and with it the next election.
    iii) The Islamist party will start compromising and pass legislation that the opposition can live with.

    Would it be better for everyone if Morsi wasn't choosing to govern as a majoritarian, absolutely. But opposition parties are still part of the government whether the governing party wants them there or not. And the opposition should absolutely insist on their rightful role.

  4. Consider a hypothetical country which formed its constitution in a free and fair election of constitutional framers. As specified by the constitution, the legislature and presidency are filled by free and fair elections, that is to say, by majority rule. All subsequent legislation and appointments are effected by the president and legislature. That fits the first and foremost definition of democracy: "government by the people; especially : rule of the majority".
    (Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary - ) Note that any majority, however small, is sufficient for 'rule by the majority'.

    Egypt's semi-government isn't as neat a case as the hypothetical one - neither is the government of literally any country in the world. But Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood won in pretty free and fair elections and- equally important - in elections where they had nothing to do with the setup. The overall turnout makes it crystal clear that the Egyptian people regarded the elections as sufficient to confer legitimacy.

    If you want to say that by 'democracy', YOU mean 'democracy as normally defined plus some stuff I like', fine. If you want to say that you consider democracy, as defined, is insufficient for political legitimacy, fine. But you can't say cases like the one described, which are fully operational under bare majorities, are not a democracies, or do not confer democratic legitimacy. That's just playing Humpty-Dumpty.

    You can also say that Morsi does not have the democratic legitimacy of an ideal case - which would hold for all real-world democracies. But you cannot deny Morsi real-world democratic legitimacy on the grounds that it's 'bare majoritarian' without distorting the meaning of the word 'democracy'. And it's pointless to discuss with someone who insists on ownership of what is obviously a collectively possessed definition.

    1. OK I agree with your analogy. I do agree that this is precisely the question whether a system where 50%+1 grants unlimited power is a democracy or not. And I'd say not.

      The very word "dictator" came from the Magister Populi an elected official who had the right to rule by decree for a set period of time to solve an emergency. So yeah I'd say be definition the type of official you are describing is not a "president" but a dictator. More of less Morsi is declaring himself dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae ("dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution"). And that is distinguished from a President of the Senate by the various checks that were put in place. So for example the Lictors (what we would today call the cabinet) answered solely to the dictator and not the Senate at large.

      Now let me just distinguish:
      Dictator perpetuo -- was one who did not have a fixed term of office
      Tyranni (tyrant) -- a dictator who was not originally elected but assumed and maintained power by force

      I'll agree that Morsi isn't either of those. I don't think the dictionary is the right approach because in popular speech: dictator, unelected, tyrant... are all in the popular usage the same thing. But no checks and balances are a vital component to a democracy. An elected dictatorship and that is certainly better than a tyranny but it is not a democracy it is alternative to democracy. A situation where 50%+1 elects someone with unlimited powers is not a democracy at all.


      Let me start with a more serious definition.

      These consensus building activities are notjust "things I like". Voting is a component of democracy and not the most important one. Human societies are huge complexes of various actives. A functioning government is the top level administrative organization for those various entities. The goal of government is to achieve coordination between a wide range of sub-societies within the state. That requires a consensus.

      Democracy is an agreement that these sub-societies will through a process of negotiation aim to achieve consensus policies. That is distinguished from those sub-societies aiming to achieve consensus from a process of violence or from the appointment of an absolute authority, a dictator, who can decide these issues without consensus. Mechanisms like open meaningful debate are absolutely vital to building a consensus. A system of voting for representatives is just a mechanism to assist the consensus building conversations, it does not replace them. Without the consensus building conversations, voting is meaningless. Again voting is perfectly consistent with a dictatorship. It is the agreement to pursue consensus, not the voting that confers legitimacy. To use your definition, "rule by the people".

      What Morsi is doing is creating law that he is going to lack the consensus to be able to enforce. By being a dictator in a society that wants democracy he is guaranteeing the government will not be effectual. These consensus policies that most if not all the sub-societies agree to uphold are what are called "laws" because a functioning government has laws that are obeyed and effective. Without the consent of those sub-socieites laws cannot be effective. The consensus building is unavoidable. Voting is is means of achieving democracy it is not democracy.

      By way of contrast, what the liberals are doing, gathering a large group of diverse interests and building them into a coalition capable of making specific demands for policy changes, is consensus building. That is democracy. Even though within the emerging anti-Islamist coalition there has not been a vote.

      So no even if I believed that Morsi had a stable 50%+1 coalition, which I don't. I don't think he's entitled to create law 40% of the population totally rejects.

  5. OK now let me hit you with something. The resolution to go to war with Iraq in 2002 (HJ 114)

    Enjoyed 72% support
    It passed 297-133 in the House
    It passed 77-23 in the Senate

    So clearly a far better majority than anything Morsi enjoys for his policies. The purpose of rallying against it, was to lower public support and thus make George Bush, an elected president pushing through a popular policy with widespread public support, less effectual in carrying out that policy by attempting to diminish public support, leading to a decrease in congressional support.

    Under the theory of majority absolutism you are proposing now... why was that a legitimate act? Why weren't you obligated to fully support George Bush until such time as an anti-Iraq war candidate won popular election?

  6. Well it appears first round is over and so far the preliminaries have it at 57/43 with it going down 70/30 in places like Alexandria and Cairo, losing narrowly in the suburbs of Cairo and doing great in more rural areas. That is a classic urban vs. rural type breakout of voters.

    So assuming that pattern holds up:

    The biggest loser is the government of Egypt. What should have been a moment when Egypt as a society came together after the revolution instead is a bitterly partisan document. This will never be the Egyptian constitution but always the Islamists constitution. For 40+% of the people rather than the government being a vehicle by which they achieve the kind of life they want to lead, the government will be a vehicle making their lives worse and undermining them. Put a fork in it, a major opportunity for good government in Egypt is now lost for a generation.

    Constitutional Democracy It takes 2/3rds of parliament to modify the constitution though evidently only a majority to repeal and replace, which will put the constitution under constant threat. The secularists are unlikely to ever get 2/3rds, even though they are likely to achieve majorities; so even if/when they achieve national power they will need to circumvent not enhance the constitutions provisions. That is, the constitution locks the secularists into Islamic forms of government, which will force them to pass laws whose clear intent is to undermine the intent of the constitution. The courts, which are packed with secularists, are going to be constantly confronted with supporting terrible 7th century law or supporting good 21st century laws that are unconstitutional. The notion of constitutional democracy cannot form under such circumstance.

    human rights in Egypt The constitution doesn't really guarantee any rights beyond a few things like pensions. The issue about explicit rights guarantees was debated in public heavily and lost. The Islamists are going to be quite justified in arguing that the Egyptian people voted against the idea that they should have human rights.

    NSF One would think after 3 lost elections that the NSF could do better than sending out messages to simultaneously boycott and vote no on the constitution. So they produce a high turnout election in which they still lose. You would think they could do better in their messaging about what the alternatives would be, as people are tired of instability. And they should have had something like a counter constitution and an interim law set ready to go.

    Islam in urban areas which is already weaker than in urban might experience a backlash effect. Identification of Mohammed with Ayman Nour cuts both ways. As Islam is associated with the hated Southern rural party the degree of identification with mainstream Islam will decrease. People who feel comfortable mocking Nour will come to feel comfortable mocking the Qu'ran and Mohammed.

  7. Winners

    The rural poor: The ruling Islamists party is now totally dependent on winning their votes again and again and again. And getting them to the polls. They don't show the NSF (or whatever they choose to call themselves) will win. The Islamists ran on delivering goodies to the poor. They fail to deliver they are out, and they know it

    Local government Mayors may emerge very powerful from this. As the national government creates laws that 70% of urban population hates, mayors of big cities are going to be the ones to make sure they are not effectual enforced and city councils will create the laws that will be enforced for the people of the cities. The national government (or rural poor) will play the role of the a "foreign enemy" and people will be bound together in support of their local secularists mayors. They will have the ability to create huge party machines to make sure that the bureaucracy in cities knows about enforces the unofficial laws that exist in the cities and not the official laws the government passes.

    Egypt doesn't seem to have a notion of local government. Having a stable national government which is loved by rural Egypt and hated by urban Egypt will make having local policy much more appealing long term. Long term the Islamist will realize the best way to keep urban turnout suppressed will be to allow those urban mayors to deliver an alternative state to their people. Without the votes of urban populations centers turning out they could rule the country indefinitely. If the Islamists are really smart what they'll is encourage people from the rural areas who hate Islamic rule to move to the cities and people in the cities who want Islamic rule to move to x-burbs or rural. They will give the mayors a great deal of flexibility and rule a much more uniform population effectively.

    Black Marketers This regional setup with a restrictive national government is absolutely ideal for black marketers. They are going to have a concentrated population centers which are also centers of shipping and trade. Because the North is going to be in rebellion against the Islamists, they going to be able to operate freely in most of the North with the passive and possibly active support of the local government. Heck if things go well for them, they may very well end up being the Northern Egyptian government. Egypt will have huge percentages of its economy off books with Black Market leaders able to tax this revenue to keep it out of the hands of the hated Southern government.

    Islam in rural areas Right now Egyptians are more by and large religious hypocrites. The Islamic government now has a clear mandate to increase Islamic adherence in practice rather than just lip service. How far they take this is hard to tell. I don't think they intend to go the route of Mali's Movement for Tawhid and Jihad but they might.

    Opposition long term The opposition right now is incompetent. While it is a tragedy for Egypt, for humanity, that the referendum won, they NSF lost because they suck at politics and deserved to lose. With the degree of passion of their followers the fact they couldn't direct them is rather pathetic. Ruling the main population centers will teach them how to govern and how to work a party. It will help them build a stable party machine like the Islamists have with their services for the poor.

    Mubarak supportersThe issue of going after them is dead. They emerged from this latest round as respected members and arguably leaders of the NSF coalition. Amr Moussa may very well be able to emerge as party leader for the NSF. Their economic control in the North is likely to be supported by other parties in the NSF.