I hate to agree with an Egyptian general about anything, but Abdul Fatah Al Sissi, who is also Egypt’s Defence Minister, had a point when he warned his countrymen on Facebook that continued violent protests in the streets might lead to collapse. Ordinary Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the government of President Mohammad Mursi, which has by turns overclaimed its authority and underdelivered in establishing order. Still, it is one thing to engage in mass protest when your target is a dictatorship — then you are a democratic revolutionary. And it is quite another to use mass protests to try and bring down a democratically elected government that you do not like. Then you are running the risk of becoming an unwitting agent of counter-revolution.
The protests that have raged for days now in three cities along the Suez Canal and spilled over into Tahrir Square in Cairo are not especially well-focused. In Port Said, at least, they were touched off by death sentences announced for football fans convicted of causing the deaths of other football fans. In essence, the protests seem to be focused on dissatisfaction with the Mursi government and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi has not accomplished much since taking office last June. To be fair, he has not been given much chance to govern. When he took the oath, the military was still trying to deny the presidency any real power. Mursi outwitted the army, but then, faced with the threat that the Egyptian Constitutional Court would disband the constitutional assembly, he briefly declared himself above law. He renounced that position once the constitution was hastily finalised and democratically approved. However, before things could settle into normalcy, the riots over the football verdict began.
There is every reason to believe that most protesters are sincerely motivated and truly fear Mursi may become an Islamist dictator and subvert the most important democratic revolution of the Arab Spring. As if to substantiate these fears, Mursi’s response to the growing protests has been to assume emergency powers — a ploy that so far has not worked. Yet, sincere democrats are making a potentially disastrous tactical error in pushing protests to the point of weakening the legitimacy of a democratic government itself. Peaceful protest should always be legitimate in a democracy, but these protests have not been wholly peaceful. There have been attacks on hotels and the protesters near the Suez Canal threatened the traffic through it. More disturbing is the sense that the protesters’ goal is to create disorder that will force Mursi to resign — a repeat of the Tahrir Square protests that forced the dictator, Hosni Mubarak, from office.
Whatever one thinks of Mursi, 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 Mursi 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 Mohammad Al Baradei, tried to mitigate this interpretation by calling on Mursi to form a national salvation government rather than resign.
That was reasonable. But strictly speaking, the democratically elected president should not have to share power just because several hundred thousand protesters do not 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 the door to military intervention — the ultimate form of counter-revolution. No better excuse for a counter-coup can be imagined than a 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 Sissi’s warning can be read as a signal that the military will once more consider stepping in as the “saviour” of democracy and the nation. Last time, it proved difficult to wrest power from them once they took it. This time they will be much smarter and instead of trying to manipulate electoral outcomes, they probably will not allow elections to happen at all. Mursi’s Brotherhood did not start the revolution and one can sympathise with the protesters’ desire to take it away from them. The original Tahrir Square rebels were in a certain sense more democratic than the Brotherhood and prepared to risk everything for their cause. However, the meaning of democracy is that you do not 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 before them: Take a deep breath, go home and let the democratically elected government try to do its job.
Mursi 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 Square, ask yourselves: You may not like Mursi, but will you really rather have the army?
— Washington Post
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.