There is an amazing demonstration going on in Egypt now against the Morsi government. If nothing else, the fact that so many have turned out to protest one year of “Islamic democracy” in action indicates that no panacea has resulted from the electing of a religious party to govern Egypt.
Calling these protests Tahrir Square Redux seems a little reductive, of course, because neither the causes of the protests nor their likely effects are the same as the original protests. The Morsi government, whatever you can say against it, is no dictatorship. It was elected by the people of Egypt, and it has also mostly behaved in a moderate manner, at least in comparison with what many of us thought would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the government of Egypt. The protests seem less about any extremism on the part of the Morsi government and more about the fact that this government has not solved many of the critical economic and infrastructural problems of the country. Guess what, folks? If a slate of liberals are elected tomorrow in Egypt, those problems will still be pretty tough to fix, and in all likelihood, there will be another sequel to the Tahrir Square protests to complain about them.
This is not to say that I don’t think the liberal opposition would do better than Morsi. I think that’s a given. But expectations are high, and I would fully expect that hostility to new liberal leaders would develop in Egypt – as they have in America – if it seems that reform is taking longer than people had hoped.
If the problems confronted by Obama aren’t enough to convince you, take a look at Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. She now has national protests against her government, which is one of the most progressive governments in the world right now. The Workers’ Party governments in Brazil have brought millions of Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class. Brazil is a huge country and many, many more still live in poverty – and yes, you can’t expect people to be patient when they are faced with poverty severe enough – but any reasonable person has to concede that the Lula and Rousseff governments have made more serious progress on poverty reduction than any governments Brazil has yet had. So progressiveness isn’t enough. We are living in times when people don’t care about what works to change the world, they care about what expresses their feelings about how the world doesn’t work.
So I’m not exactly enthusiastic about the current Tahrir Redux appellation, because it’s unclear how much these protests, as opposed to the previous ones, are really going to help matters. The one thing the liberal movement in Egypt still fails to grasp is that they lost the previous elections, and that no one will respect the results of new elections hastily called if _they_ do not respect the results of the previous elections. Democracy is about minority rights, but it is also about respecting majority rule. To the extent that the protesters are seeking a balance of those principles, I’m behind them. To the extent that they don’t get that they lost the election, I’m not.
The same issues are in play in Turkey, where protesters against the Erdoğan government run the risk of making that same mistake. If Erdoğan is re-elected, this time as President (term limits prevent him from another run for PM), will they re-evaluate whether these protests were smart? Or will they perhaps consider refocusing these kinds of protests so they are about establishing a minority rights-majority rule balance? Right now it’s not clear the Turkish even perceive these issues. If they are taken to be a group trying to strongarm the majority into submission, the protests might well backfire. Fortunately for the Turkish protesters, Erdoğan’s over-the-top response to the protests confers them more popular legitimacy than they might have otherwise had.
Morsi could end up making the same mistakes. There have already been deaths in the new Egyptian protests, mostly because of armed Salafists picking fights with protesters. But Morsi might also have learned something from Turkey. The smart thing for his government to do is begin a dialogue with the protesters without acceding to the demands for early elections. If he does that, then the only thing that remains is to wait for the new elections and see if the liberals can win them.
Both my heart and my brain are with the liberals, of course, but my gut is somewhere else at the moment. I sense that a lot of people at the current protests have not thought things through.
Even if they get the early elections – can they win them? If they get them at a later time – same question. If they get elected – what then?
Perhaps there are those who have thought about this more seriously. I certainly hope that’s the case. But democracy requires the winning of votes, not merely the organisation of protests, and government requires the success of legislative and executive agendas, not merely the expression of dissatisfaction with the current state of things.
It may not be part of the spirit of the current age to concern oneself with such matters, but hopefully, someone in Egypt does nevertheless. Or at least somebody somewhere does.