Tuesday 2 July 2013

Why the Tahrir Square protests are a danger to democracy

Egypt is once again engulfed in political upheaval. This time it is the democratically elected president Morsi who is under attack from street protesters. This morning, on the Today show, the BBC correspondent quoted a protester saying that the army is their friend, as long as it would support the protests.

The irony of the current situation does not escape anyone's notice. Whilst only a year and a half ago, the Tahrir square was filled with protests against the army and its grip on society, now the 'democracy' camp is hoping that the army will impose 'democracy from above'. What is going on?

In essence, Egypt is transitioning slowly from a politics of protests to a system of negotiated politics. Neither side is good at this newly won freedom. And whatever would emerge through negotiations, a sizable minority will not like the outcome. At the heart of it stands a misguided view of what democracy is all about. Those protesting on Tahrir Square presume that they own politics, that their vision of Egypt society is the only legitimate one. They also believe (wrongly, I think) that protesting legitimises their demands in a similar way as it has happened previously as they gained the favour of the world opinion in their fight against the Mubarak regime. Back then, however, street protests were a legitimate way to change things since the political space for free argument and debate had not been created yet. Things are different now.

Democracy is not a shouting match. It is based on a willingness to compromise and to accommodate conflicting viewpoints. Tahrir Square can never be a birthplace for democratic institutions. Street protests are not a suitable arena for a meaningful dialogue between different factions of society. In a sense, then, the protesters on Tahrir Square are mistaken when they think that their demands are resembling those two years ago. Morsi's presidency is not the same as Mubarak's.

Morsi has a democratic mandate, and the willingness of the protesters to make a pact with the army will only serve the old regime. As so often with democratic transitions, some people who have been emboldened by direct democracy will have to be frustrated for true democracy to develop. It is time for Morsi to become the champion of Egypt's democracy the country needs. And it is time for the protesters on Tahrir Square to go home.

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