Legitimacy in Egypt


It is a sad testament to the failure of Mohamed Morsi's presidency that his claim to remain in office has been based on right rather than merit. 

Almost everyone accepts that he was legitimately elected, and that is certainly a strong point in his favour. But once a leader has been elected, continuing legitimacy is in the eye of beholders and unless nurtured it may be lost. 

During his 12 months in power, Morsi's performance was lacklustre and at times incompetent. That, however, was not the main reason why Egyptians took to the streets last weekend to protest in unprecedented numbers. Morsi put himself beyond the pale by promising inclusiveness and then spreading divisiveness, and by adopting a style of government that increasingly resembled that of the ousted Mubarak regime.

So why not wait a few years till the next election, then vote him out of office? This is a question I have heard a few people asking – especially American TV presenters. One answer is that there are numerous problems (above all, the economy) which need urgent attention but the question might also be framed another way: Why should a president be expected to complete his term if he has clearly lost the confidence of the public?

In the US, presidents – good and bad alike – are expected to serve their full term unless they happen to get caught in skulduggery like Richard Nixon, but that is not the only system. In Britain, only two of the last four prime ministers have been removed by the public at the ballot box and, worldwide, similar examples can be found in other democracies.

Margaret Thatcher – Britain's most divisive prime minister of the 20th century – was toppled by her own party when they realised she had become an electoral liability. The key difference between Thatcher and Morsi is that the perpetrators of the "coup" against Thatcher were not the military but her civilian colleagues. Thatcher, unlike Morsi, also agreed to go voluntarily once it became clear that her position was untenable.

Morsi might have heeded the warnings about his authoritarianism and divisiveness, but he chose not to. Now that he is gone, it's perfectly possible – and not inconsistent – to welcome his departure without welcoming the means by which it was achieved.

The need now, though, is to get the military back in their box as soon as possible. The military insist that they have no desire to rule Egypt, and that they are only protecting the "will of the people". Evidence so far, such as the appointment of a civilian (and a Morsi appointee) as interim president suggests they are sincere about that ... at least for the moment. 

The "will of the people" phrase, though, reasonable as it might sound today, does open the door to further meddling by the military which could easily turn into a habit.

Meanwhile, there's the task of assembling a new government which, given the history of Morsi's rule, needs to be inclusive and be seen as representing a broad swathe of political opinion. We have yet to see who will agree to join it, and if key elements cannot be persuaded to take part the military may then start thinking about a Plan B.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 4 July 2013