Egypt: Did the Ballot Box Expire?

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Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather outside the Rabaa El-Adaweya mosque in Cairo's eastern Nasr City district on 2 July 2013. (Photo: AFP - Gianluigi Guercia)

By: Mostafa Bassyouni

Published Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It might seem irrational when a population votes for a person in an election only to protest against him and ask him to leave. When the opposition announced June 30 as a day to overthrow Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, less than a year after his election, invoking the legitimacy of the ballot box was understandable.

Mursi came to power by a majority vote in an election that, regardless of irregularities, was definitely different than those under the Hosni Mubarak regime. The outcomes of Mubarak’s elections were fairly consistent with the results of other votes following the revolution, the Constitutional Declaration in March 2011, the parliamentary elections in December 2011, and, finally, the constitutional referendum.

The Islamist current won and it was only logical for the Islamist candidate to succeed. Based on the democratic mechanisms in place, Mursi's legitimacy should not be challenged. It would also be a very convincing explanation to say that it is merely a struggle between political Islam, in the broader sense, and civil forces.

It becomes even more convincing when we look to the east. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also the head of a democratically elected government and one cannot challenge the fairness of the electoral process that brought him and his party to power. However, he differs from his Egyptian counterpart in having achieved tangible progress on important issues in Turkey, such as the Kurdish issue, foreign relations, and the economy.

Despite that, protests have erupted against him, demanding he leave. Again, it seems like a conflict between political Islam, in one of its most moderate forms, and the secular forces in Turkey.

If we look farther, toward Brazil, this arguments loses its value. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Lula da Silva in 2010, belongs to the Workers' Party (PT) and not a political current. She became president of her country through the ballot box, whose legitimacy cannot be challenged, and won 58 percent of the popular vote.

Rousseff also faced protests when she raised bus ticket prices ahead of the Confederations Cup in football. She ordered the army into protest areas and attempted to absorb the anger by cutting prices.

Before these concurrent events, Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou of the Socialist Party was forced to leave power in 2011, after a general uprising in the aftermath of the implementation of austerity measures imposed on Greece by the EU to cope with the economic crisis.

These protests certainly vary in their power, popularity, and reach. However, none were against dictatorships or hereditary rule, but against governments elected through a democratic process, whose fairness is difficult to challenge. It is also notable that they were regimes of various political affiliations.

It was normal for mass protests to erupt against dictatorial regimes that could not be changed in through elections. However, protests demanding the overthrow of elected regimes, legitimized by the ballot box, is something that needs consideration.

One cannot underestimate the value of voting rights. This right was the subject of the struggle of people around the world since the end of the 18th century until today. It was one of the few indicators of equality between citizens and lack of discrimination based on property, race, or gender.

Achieving the right to vote was considered an important development in political life, something lacking in kingdoms and similar regimes. It meant the participation of people in creating policies, even if only through approval, and the possibility of change through the ballot box, in case the policies of the ruler were not to their liking or if commitments were not fulfilled.

It seems the ballot box is sometimes too small for the will of the people. Many times, votes would be in favor of changes in applied policies, but when power is exchanged through the ballot box, nothing would change.

When power was transferred from the Tories to Labour in 1990s Britain, the Labour Party continued with policies initiated by the Conservative Party. Guantanamo was considered one of the worst achievements of George W. Bush and promises of its closure were an important factor in garnering votes for Barack Obama. However, Obama is in his second term and still deliberating its closure.

Despite the democratic electoral process, several complications ensure that it remains far from a true representation of collective will. For example, financial capacity plays a pivotal role in any electoral process. The ability to reach the largest number of voters depends on money devoted to electoral campaigning, not to mention electoral bribes.

In many cases, sectarian, confessional, and tribal relations play an important role in diverting voters from political programs. The Egyptian elections won by Mohamed Mursi is a good example of this. Fears by Coptic Christians and civil movements of the rise of political Islam directed votes towards Ahmed Shafik, one of Mubarak's men, who faced millions of protesters as prime minister after the revolution. Fear of a counter-revolution in the second round redirected votes towards Mursi. This meant that popular will did not truly decide on Mursi or Shafik.

Representative democracy was the aim of people's struggle. This type of democracy expressed the highest degree of political participation for a long time. However, it seems that this type of representation is no longer enough to satisfy people's aspirations. They began to express their anger before it was time to go to the ballot box and change the ruler based on the mechanisms of representational democracy.

Mass movements erupting here and there against democratically elected governments reveal the deep flaws of representational democracy’s mechanisms. Using the legitimacy of the ballot box against the masses is a very strange occurrence, since it is the masses that give the ballot box its legitimacy. Setting a strict date for their expression of their opinion of the ruling regime and through a single legitimate mechanism becomes unfathomable. It is also incomprehensible how voting for a person or a party in elections becomes an unconditional mandate until the date of the next elections.

The mass rebellions against the ballot box in more than one place pose difficult questions about the mechanisms of representational democracy. They uncovered the limits of popular participation in forming and implementing policies. It is now clear that procedural and legalistic solutions do not live up to peoples' aspirations.

On the other hand, the mass movements rising against elected regimes have yet to elaborate their ideas about alternative mechanisms to ensure more effective public participation.

There are many theories and ideas about direct democracy, as opposed to representative democracy, but only limited historical examples of wide popular participation. However, we should remember that people who struggled against hereditary royal regimes and absolute power did not have a clear perception of representational democracy from the beginning. These ideas developed as the movement progressed.

The movements rising against the legitimacy of the ballot box today will be the ones to provide alternative perceptions to representational democracy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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