On Wednesday morning, as the deadline for the military’s ultimatum to President Morsi and other political leaders neared, journalist James Miller wrote, “This Egypt thing is fascinating. Who is for “democracy” and who is against it? Everyone? Neither?”
The comment was prescient. It also missed the point.
The buzzword “democracy” circulated throughout Wednesday, as the armed forces announced that they had deposed Morsi and taken control. It is in headlines today, such as “Can A Coup Ever Be Democratic?” and “Democracy Loses in Egypt and Beyond“. It is preoccupying the US Government, as it tried to avoid the word “coup”, so as to avoid problems with maintaining military aid to Cairo.
But, far from providing an insight into events, the invocation of “democracy” — as seen in Miller’s question — only added to the confusion. The opposition to Morsi might claim that their popular Revolution was in the service of democracy, but they were calling for the removal of a President who had been democratically elected only a year earlier. The angry supporters of Morsi, only a short distance away, were swearing a mass oath to use any means necessary — democratic or far from democratic — to put their man back in power.
So why the confusion over “democracy”? Because the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt over the past weeks — not just the military’s decision to oust the President, but the popular protests of the past days and the events leading up to them — were for the most past not about “democracy” per se.
Instead, underpinning the popular unrest was dissatisfaction that the Morsi government had failed to meet basic political and economic needs.
Passing references were made this week to a “MorsiMeter“, which was created by activists in June 2012 to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s Presidency and to see how he performed, but few people discussed the significance of the fact that Morsi had failed to deliver on his promises in several basic economic and social areas.
That’s a shame, because those readings — even though they measured only his first 100 days in office — probably said far more than any slogan or snap analysis in the last week.
Security (17 Promises): 6% Achieved, 41% In Progress, 53% Not Spotted
Traffic (21 Promises): 10% Achieved, 38% In Progrees, 52% Not Spotted
Bread (13 Promises): 23% Achieved, 23% In Progress, 54% Not Spotted
Cleanliness (8 Promises): 38% Achieved, 62% In Progress
Fuel (5 Promises): 20% Achieved, 20% In Progress, 60% Not Spotted
Nor did the Morsi Government appear to make significant progress after its first 100 days. One of the major challenges was to overcome rising “food insecurity”, but last month Louisa Lovelock of The Guardian reported:
The queues get longer every day. The rising cost of food in Egypt is sending more people to the thousands of government-subsidised bakeries across the country offering a lifeline to a population struggling to cope….
As Egypt faces its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the rate of inflation has risen sharply, with serious implications for consumers.
The price of many items has doubled since last autumn. Vegetables, along with bread and cereals, are subject to the highest increases, rising by 3.4% and 2.3% respectively between February and March, driven by a 5.5% increase in the price of wheat flour and 4.3% rise in the cost of rice.
The Egyptian Food Observatory, a joint project of the Egyptian Cabinet and the United Nations World Food Programme, reported at the end of March:
About 37.1% of vulnerable households¹ surveyed reported being exposed to some form of shock which affected
their financial situation over the last year, where it went up from 34.7% in Quarter 4 [of] 2012. About 44.1% of
these households identified significant food price increases as the major challenge, up from one-third in Q4.
Of the households surveyed, 89% said they had “insufficient income to meet monthly needs”.
Meanwhile, the Morsi Government was unable to check falling foreign reserves, estimated by spring to cover less than three months of essential imports. It was caught between the requirement, if it was to get international support, to cut expenditure such as subsidies and the dependence of much of the Egyptian population on subsidised fuel and commodities.
The headline “solution” of a proposed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was stuck in months of fruitless negotiation. In a telling moment last November, President Morsi — having just declared an expansion of his powers — suddenly imposed a series of taxes on goods and services, preparing the fiscal path for the loan. Within 72 hours, he revoked the decision.
So, instead of establishing the economic platform to meet the needs of its people, Cairo faced the likelihood of an increasing economic and political dependence on hand-outs — described as loans or investments — from foreign states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Perhaps all of this could have been borne by Egyptians if they thought that, two years after the revolution that deposed the Mubarak regime, a political system was being established to deliver long-term solutions.
But that system was not in sight. Parliament, the example of “democracy” from last year’s elections, was suspended last year by a court order, citing technicalities over the parliamentary elections. Elections to remedy the situation were announced and then postponed amid further conflict between the Government and the Judiciary. The new Constitution was entangled in disputes between the committee drafting it, politicians, and the courts.
Last June’s Presidential election might have represented “democracy”, but for how long? After weeks, months, Morsi’s first 100 day, this marker had to be followed up by significant change in the Egyptian political system to deliver the basics of everyday life: food, sanitation, health care, education, transportation.
Morsi was not seen by many Egyptians to deliver this, in part because of his shortcomings and ill-advised actions like last November’s power grab, in part because of the rivalries within a dysfunctional political system.
That is why the protesters in Tahrir Square, rather than being cleared out on this occasion, were able to mobilise millions — providing the platform for the military’s takeover. That is why the President’s last call on Tuesday night for “legitimacy” rang so hollow. Legitimacy is not granted for years in a single vote; it has to be earned through fulfilments of promises.
Which takes Egypt beyond “democracy” into yet another stage — a new stage, which is almost the same as the old stage of the military’s takeover of power in 2011: can the armed forces deliver any more than Morsi, meeting its declaration last night that it would “perform public service and…secure essential protection of the demands of their revolution”?