As Egypt embarks on its first democratic elections some have called into question the legitimacy of continued street protests as a vehicle for political change. It is argued that a democratic state contains sufficient channels to voice dissent – rendering popular uprisings unnecessary.
This has given rise to several important questions. Should demonstrations have a role in shaping Egypt’s political future or would they be a hindrance to its democratic evolution? More importantly, are they justified when they challenge the “will of the majority”?
In all its democratic aspirations, Egypt in its current political state is nowhere near a democracy. Its interim military rulers have assumed absolute authority, delegating day-to-day affairs to a dysfunctional caretaker cabinet. Sufficient checks on government coercion such as free media, independent courts, and an accountable government are nonexistent. Even the elections which were supposed to mark the successful conclusion of Egypt’s revolution, have not been exempt from criticism.
In the nine months following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, frustration over the sincerity of the army’s commitment to hand over power has been building. During this period, over 12,000 civilians, many of them demonstrators, have been sentenced by military tribunals, surpassing the number of political prisoners during Mubarak’s 30 years. The military council reenacted Mubarak’s oppressive Emergency Law and clamped down heavily on independent media. More recently, the “Selmy document”, a proposed set of supra-constitutional laws that sought to shield the army from public scrutiny, has caused a national uproar.
One week ahead of elections, a brutal assault by the police on a group of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square left 41 people dead and more than 3,200 injured. The events proved to many Egyptians that Mubarak’s regime continues to run the country, albeit without Mubarak. As a result, Egyptians flocked back to Tahrir Square to voice their anger and activists have demanded an immediate end to military rule.
During a press conference, a member of the military council singled out the protesters in Tahrir, explaining that their demands were not necessarily in agreement with those of the rest of the nation. The military general went on to say that Egyptians will make their voices heard through the voting stations and not the streets. However, the ballot box is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Democracy is, among other things, an instrument to maximize freedom and challenge oppression. The real problem is that the “will of the people”, manifested through democracy, does not automatically ensure justice and equality for all.
In the 19th century, the democratically elected government of the United States upheld that the practice of slavery was legal. Indeed, slavery being acceptable was a view held by the majority of U.S. citizens during this period. Henry Thoreau, the American philosopher, passionately supported the abolition of slavery and set out to challenge the views of his fellow citizens. In his well known essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849), Thoreau explained that, within the context of a democratically elected government, when a person’s conscience clashes with the law, that person has a moral obligation to follow his conscience. He regarded nonviolent methods of resistance as an integral check on the democratic system and a legitimate method for correcting the injustice that may flow as a result from the ballot box.
Civil resistance operates through confronting the ruling regime and challenging both its ability to govern and its legitimacy. Forms of demanding accountability include demonstrations, sit-ins and occupations, strikes, boycotts and petitions. Egyptians have a long history of civil resistance, starting from the first historical record of a labor strike during the reign of pharaoh Ramses III to the non-violent revolution of 1919 against British occupation.
In his final days in power, Mubarak threatened that continued protests will lead to anarchy. However, the choice between lawlessness and despotism is misleading. Historically, campaigns of civil resistance have never led to the collapse of the state or the breakdown of law and order. Those who advocate civil resistance are usually careful to set boundaries on their actions, setting out which laws they will obey and which they won’t.
During their uprising, Egyptians demonstrated an unprecedented level of civic responsibility. Protesters formed a human shield to protect the Egyptian museum from Mubarak’s thugs. Egyptian citizens, armed with sticks, formed vigilante groups to defend their homes and directed traffic in the absence of police authority. Cairene women and men, accompanied by their children, cleaned up the square the morning after Mubarak’s departure.
This apparent dilemma is best expressed in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
But who decides which laws are just and which aren’t? What is considered “just” can mean different things to different people. We’ve seen Islamists in Egypt rally the masses to Tahrir Square in a show of force. On the other hand, we’ve also seen riots spread across the U.K. and disintegrate into burglary and vandalism.
Philosophers have argued that “universal” or “natural” law is paramount, and that national laws, which do not conform with universal laws, are unjust and should be resisted. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an attempt to codify some of these natural rights in response to the atrocities of World War II. Ironically, Egypt was among the first 48 countries to ratify the declaration on December 10, 1948.
If the preliminary results of the ongoing elections are any indicator, Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution will be drafted by a majoritarian, non-representative parliament. Many activists have boycotted the elections preferring instead to continue their occupation of the square. Egyptians have challenged injustice long before the Arab Spring, and should continue to do so whether this represents the will of the majority or a tyrannical regime.
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Tamer Fouad is an Egyptian physician and blogger commenting on political and current affairs in Egypt as well as on the Arab transition towards democracy. He has also published several awareness articles promoting liberalism and free speech on the Muslim Brotherhood's English website Іkhwanweb.com, but is not affiliated with the Brotherhood. Tamer is a regular contributing author on MiddleEastVoices.com.