“Democracy is overrated,” said my Chilean friend when business mogul Sebastián Piñera was elected president of Chile. “Democracy is the illusion of consensus,” said my Egyptian friend when Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Mursi was elected president of Egypt. Several years and thousands of miles apart the two incidents occurred and numerous comments of the sort must have been said in almost every country that calls itself, rightly so or not, a democracy. Even though my two friends were voicing a personal opinion about candidates they obviously did not support, their remarks underline one fact that a lot of people and most heads of state tend to overlook; democracy in its current form never reflects the will of an entire people. This means that while citizens take part in the democratic process in an attempt to bring to power candidates they trust, they are also aware that they will have to respect the decision of the majority and this is how opposition is created. Like democracy, the concept of majority is also quite problematic if we take into consideration that it might mean 50 percent plus one, therefore an elected president can be opposed by 50 percent minus one of eligible voters. Democracy, therefore, would seem to be much less indicative of popular unison than its marketed image, yet it remains the best available alternative to dictatorship and the most legitimate form of governance.
People’s anger will never subside as long as they feel eternally trapped in the vicious circle of pre-election exploitation and post-election marginalizationSonia Farid
While citizens of a democracy are capable of accepting a result they did not desire, they are never willing to be as complacent when they end up with an elected dictator. This is exactly when a wide range of popular actions can be taken and which could range from street protests through calls for impeachment to outright toppling of the regime, with the level of the reaction depending on the tyranny and/ or inefficiency of the target president. Elections, therefore, do not provide an eternal shield for the elected official and can never be used to justify a series of failures and autocratic practices. This is particularly why Egyptians, who a couple of years ago staged a revolution for democracy, are now setting out to rebel against “democracy.”
The international experience of protests
Officially deemed an attempt to undermine democracy, the massive protests that are to take place on June 30 to call upon the president to step down are not very different from similar reactions to the policies and practices of elected officials and nation-wide demonstrations that swept the United States after George W. Bush decided to go to war on Iraq offer the best example. True the situation in Egypt is particularly different, insofar as the criteria based on which voters made their choices and the violations reportedly committed by the winning party, but had the electoral process been impeccably free and fair, Egyptians would have still decided to take to the streets on that day to demand the toppling of not only the regime, but also the type of democracy that brought it, and Hitler, to power.
Demonstrations against Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Sarkozy, and most recently Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to cite a few examples, manifest, I believe, a popular rejection of the form of democracy that allows one person or a few people to make decisions on behalf of all citizens for a given number of years, in other words “representative democracy.” This type of democracy does not necessarily create dictators in the proper sense of the word, but it does allow power to be monopolized by a small number of people who gradually turn into a ruling elite that starts serving its own interests rather than the people’s. Those are chosen by voters based on a set of rosy promises and no realistic guarantees. Once in office, the equation starts changing as a totally new arrangement of priorities emerges so that imperialist expansions, business enterprises, political alliances… etc. take precedence over people’s needs, hence the anger that takes the shape of protests and is likely to evolve to a more drastic level of action if the people are not pacified in one way or another. So, basically it is a one-way street in which you can’t go back after you realize you were wrong and in which you stand helpless as you see a number of crimes being committed in your and democracy’s name.
What is democracy?
A democracy in which the role of the people stops at the ballot box is a contradiction in terms, especially if we bear in mind the original meaning of the word that gave rise to the system; the rule of the people. In addition to the actual damage which befalls any country that is entirely controlled for several years by the same minority, people’s anger will never subside as long as they feel eternally trapped in the vicious circle of pre-election exploitation and post-election marginalization. It is, therefore, time for another form of democracy in which people are more involved in the decision-making process, in other words a “direct democracy.” This type of democracy is based on the active participation of the people whether as independent individuals, through taking part in referenda to decide on an already proposed issue or signing petitions to initiate a certain policy or action, or as members of lobbying groups that have the ability to direct the vote or both. Applying this system will see the emergence a new power balance between the government and civil society so that a strong popular front is formed to counter any official decisions seen as detrimental to the people and/or the country.
The June 30 protests are the culmination of a nation-wide campaign that aims at collecting 15 million signatures to oust the president and hold early presidential elections. Whether they realize it or not, the initiators of this campaign have taken sure steps towards the establishment of a direct democracy. They, as well as every Egyptian who signed the petition, are actually setting a precedent in Egypt through asserting their right to lead a “recall,” a procedure through which elected officials are to leave office before their term is over if enough signatures are collected to demonstrate public discontent at their performance. Through this campaign, the Egyptian people are declaring that after decades of totalitarian rule they will not be fooled into accepting a dictatorship in a democratic guise and that after one year of conventional democracy they will not stand still while they are reduced to vote casting machines. Lacking in political awareness as they might seem to be, average Egyptian citizens have managed to engage in a practice that is typical of long-established democracies where people are fed up with having their fate controlled by a bunch of untrustworthy politicians.
Regardless of how much of a change the protest can actually effect on the ground, June 30 is a historic day in post-revolution Egypt, for it does not only force us to ask the inevitable question, “How democratic is Egyptian democracy?” but also another even more inevitable one: “How democratic is democracy… as we know it?”
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at email@example.com