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
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.