Egypt’s protesting democrats may pave the way for an army takeover

I hate to agree with an Egyptian general about anything, but Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, who’s also Egypt’s defense minister, had a point when he warned his countrymen on Facebook that continued violent protest in the streets might lead to collapse.

Ordinary Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the government of President Mohamed Morsi, which has by turns overclaimed its authority and underdelivered in establishing order. Still, it’s one thing to engage in mass protest when your target is a dictatorship — then you are a democratic revolutionary. It’s quite another to use mass protests to try and bring down a democratically elected government that you don’t like. Then you’re running the risk of becoming an unwitting agent of counterrevolution.

The protests that have raged for days now in three cities along the Suez Canal and spilled over into Tahrir Square in Cairo aren’t especially well-focused. In Port Said, at least, they were touched off by death sentences announced for soccer fans convicted of causing the deaths of other soccer fans. In essence, the protests seem to be focused on dissatisfaction with the Morsi government and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi hasn’t accomplished much since taking office last June. To be fair, he hasn’t been given much chance to govern. When he took the oath, the military was still trying to deny the presidency any real power. Morsi outwitted the army, but then, faced with the threat that the Egyptian Constitutional Court would disband the constitutional assembly, he briefly declared himself above the law. He renounced that position once the constitution had been hastily finalized and democratically approved. But before things could settle into normalcy, the soccer-verdict riots began.

There’s every reason to believe that most protesters are sincerely motivated and truly fear Morsi might become an Islamist dictator and subvert the most important democratic revolution of the Arab Spring. As if to substantiate these fears, Morsi’s response to the growing protests has been to assume emergency powers — a ploy that so far hasn’t worked.

Yet sincere democrats are making a potentially disastrous tactical error in pushing protests to the point of weakening the legitimacy of democratic government itself. Peaceful protest should always be legitimate in a democracy. But these protests haven’t been wholly peaceful. There have been attacks on hotels, and the protesters near the Suez Canal threaten the traffic through it.

More disturbing is the sense that the protesters’ goal is to create disorder that would force Morsi to resign, a repeat of the Tahrir Square protests that forced the dictator Hosni Mubarak from office. Whatever one thinks of Morsi, he was elected in a relatively free and fair election. The Brotherhood’s political party also won a plurality of seats in the legislative election. Taken together with the popular ratification of the constitution, there have been three national votes with roughly the same results. That amounts to as clear a message of democratic legitimacy for Morsi and his party as anyone ever gets in our complicated world.

When protesters try to bring down an elected government that they dislike and distrust, they are challenging democracy itself — whether they admit it or not. One opposition leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, tried to mitigate this interpretation by calling on Morsi to form a national salvation government rather than resign. That was reasonable. But strictly speaking, the democratically elected president shouldn’t have to share power just because several hundred thousand protesters don’t like him. Constitutional democracy is built through respect for democratic procedures, not by conceding to the demands of the mob.

Worse, well-meaning protesters are opening to the door to military intervention — the ultimate form of counterrevolution. No better excuse for a countercoup could be imagined than the democratic government’s failure to control the streets. A well-known weakness of liberal democracy is the difficulty in standing up to persistent, mass challenges without violating rights. Al-Seesi’s warning can be read as a signal that the military would once more consider stepping in as the “savior” of democracy and the nation. Last time, it proved difficult to wrest power from them once they took it. This time they would be much smarter, and instead of trying to manipulate electoral outcomes, they probably wouldn’t allow elections to happen at all.

Morsi’s Brotherhood didn’t start the revolution, and one can sympathize with the protesters’ desire to take it away from them. The original Tahrir rebels were in a certain sense more democratic than the Brotherhood, and prepared to risk everything for their cause. But the meaning of democracy is that you don’t always get what you want. Elections are an imperfect translation of the popular will, but they are all we have.

If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a few shots from military dictatorship, they have just one path available to them: Take a deep breath, go home, and let the democratically elected government try to do its job. Morsi and his government may do well or badly. But as long as they are up for re-election in a few years, they will have laid the groundwork for democratic transition.

Patriots of Tahrir, ask yourselves: You may not like Morsi. But would you really rather have the army?

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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