SODOM & GOMORRAH: Egypt made waves in the international press again this week as a panel of judges declared parliament to be illegal. This has left many feeling dismayed and concerned that Egypt won’t be able to fully transition to a functioning liberal democracy. The truth is, it never was able to.
The Egyptian court’s decision was twofold. First, it effectively dissolved both houses of the country’s parliament. Second, it claimed that former loyalists to Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ousted president, may run for office in the upcoming election. The election is scheduled to continue this weekend despite the ruling.
Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptial legal scholar and former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that the court’s decision to dissolve parliament left Egypt in a complete mess. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came out in typical imperial garb and said that there would be “no retreat” from democracy in Egypt. ElBaradei and other prominent figures have decided to boycott the upcoming presidential election.
The real mess in Egypt is not from the courts, it’s from the belief that liberal democracy can function anywhere, much less a country that has no real liberal past. The court decision reflects the paradox present in liberal democracy; both decisions made by the courts are contradictory and confusing.
The first decision is fundamentally democratic, but anti-liberal. The courts did not decide that presidents were not legal, just the parliament. By dissolving the parliament and allowing the presidential election to continue, they have in effect set up a pure popular democracy in the country. The people as a whole, not the party structure, will determine the future leader. Then the relationship will be one between the leader and the body-politic of the people, with a majority of the people supporting the leader. The decision, in short, is the most democratic one the court could have made.
The second decision is liberal, but anti-democratic. It’s clear from the strength and force behind the uprising that Mubarak loyalists are in the minority. If they weren’t, it’s likely they’d still be in charge. Allowing them to run is a liberal decision because it falls under the umbrella of the “free competition of ideas and speech” that is the lifeblood and metaphysical necessity of modern liberalism. The resulting cries of outrage are from a majority who feel that Mubarak loyalists shouldn’t be allowed to hold power because they are part of an old, unpopular regime. Theirs is a democratic outrage because the old regime was pretty oligarchical and the uprising is predicated on rejecting that oligarchy.
A Choice Must Be Made
The conflict cannot be resolved. In western countries, people are so used to and inundated with this schizophrenia that they have lost the will to fight for one side or the other. Political conflicts in those societies are short term in nature and subject to incredible bouts of amnesia – when the majority disagrees with a group, that group sides with liberalism; when the majority agrees with a group, that group sides with democracy. The two ideas of majority rule and individual rights are forever in contradiction to each other and are impossible to resolve.
Egypt does not have the amnesia and apathy common to western societies. When the sides conflict, they angrily demand an answer. They are not yet used to living under a schizophrenic political system.