The events that led Egypt’s military to remove former president Mohamed Morsi confronted the army with a simple choice: intervention or chaos. Seventeen million people in the street is not the same thing as an election. It is an awesome manifestation of people power.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was unable to shift from being an opposition movement to being a governing party. Of course, governments govern badly or well or averagely. However, this is different. Egypt’s economy is tanking. Ordinary law and order has virtually disappeared. Services are not functioning properly.
Individual ministers did their best. A few weeks back, I met the tourism minister, who I thought was excellent and had a sensible plan to revive the sector. A few days later, he resigned, after Morsi took the mind-boggling step of appointing as governor of Luxor province (a key tourist destination) someone who was affiliated with the group responsible for the terrorist attack in 1997 — Egypt’s worst ever — in which more than 60 tourists in Luxor were killed.
Now the army is faced with the delicate and arduous task of steering the country back onto a path toward elections and a rapid return to democratic rule. We must hope that they can do this without further bloodshed. Meanwhile, however, someone will have to run things and govern. This will mean making some tough, even unpopular decisions. It will not be easy.
What is happening in Egypt is the latest example of the interplay, visible the world over, between democracy, protest, and government efficacy.
Democracy is a way to decide who the decisionmakers will be, not a substitute for making decisions. I remember an early conversation with some young Egyptians shortly after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011. They believed that with democracy, problems would be solved. When I asked what the right economic policy for Egypt should be, they simply said that all would be fine, because now they had democracy; but any economic ideas that they did have were well to the old left of anything that had a remote chance of working.
I am a strong supporter of democracy. However, democratic government alone does not guarantee effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. When governments do not deliver, people protest. They don’t want to wait for an election. In fact, as Turkey and Brazil show, people may protest even when, by any objective measure, their countries have made huge progress.
As countries move from low- to middle-income status, people’s expectations rise. They want higher-quality services, better housing, and good infrastructure (especially transport). They resent — to the point of mobilizing in the streets — any hint that a clique at the top is barring their way.
This is a sort of free democratic spirit that operates outside the convention that elections decide the government. It is fueled enormously by social media (itself a revolutionary phenomenon) and it moves very fast in precipitating crisis.
It is not always consistent or rational. A protest is not a policy; and a placard is not a program for government. However, if governments lack clear arguments with which to rebut protesters, they are in trouble.
MIDDLE EAST TURMOIL
In Egypt, the government’s problems were compounded by resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and intolerance. People came to believe that the Brotherhood was steadily imposing its own doctrines on everyday life.