Egypt: Looking for legitimacy
Even before the second round of Egyptian referendum balloting takes place, come Saturday, troubling signs are clearly emerging, raising the basic issue of the legitimacy of the regime to follow.
It is not clear whether the expected constitution will be a rallying point for more polarization in society and whether President Muhammad Mursi will take the lead to try to reach out to all sections of the society and have a more inclusive representative government that will provide a base for domestic and regional stability.
If past elections are any guide to those supporting the draft constitution led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, they have won the first round by a small margin of 57 percent of some eight million voters. It remains to be seen whether the second round will carry the same percentage or the opposition that is crying foul will be able to mobilize a vigorous “no” that will impact the first round or even go for boycott. Indeed, some of the opposition figures were advising to deny results any recognition. Voting and elections in general are mainly determined by two things: Resources and organization. Though the opposition had been active and able to rally people to demonstrate in the streets, it did not register similar success in bringing them to the ballot booths to cast their “no” vote.
Voting for the constitution is not the end of the game. In two months’ time, a new parliamentary election should take place to decide on the upcoming Parliament, another politically tense point that calls for more polarization.
However, taking voters to the polling station and voting in favor of the draft constitution or eventually for the parliamentary ones will not necessarily mean allying politically with Mursi and his Islamist group. A growing number of Egyptians are worried that if the draft constitution is defeated, it will throw the whole country into unknown turmoil that will complicate and undermine an already complicated and difficult economic situation which will cause political disarray in the country.
Mursi, his party and his allies may win the day, but the question over the legitimacy of the new regime they helped establish, will still linger. Legitimacy does not necessarily stem from the ballot box though it could be one of its forms. In the simplest form of definition, it means popular acceptance of the government. That acceptance can come from the ballot box or from a monarchy. And that is why in political science, they divide legitimacy into three categories: Charismatic, traditional and rational or legal. In the words of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, legitimacy can move in cycles of exchange between various forms. In the case of Egypt, for instance, it has firstly tried the traditional form of legitimacy during the period before the 1952 coup, then the charismatic legitimacy that was mainly associated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who initially managed to instill national pride in the country before being discredited in the face of a defeat by Israel back in 1967. Sadat carried out another form of legitimacy based on the partial victory he achieved by crossing the Bar Lev lines in 1973, but his policies and those of his successor later exhausted that capital.
The new regime is trying to build its legitimacy on the rationale and legal base of elections and the expression of free will of the people. However, the draft constitution, even if it survives the second round through the support of a marginally higher vote, shows the need for the government to do more to win larger segments of society to the side of the new regime and its legitimacy.
Even more important is how the Egyptian people will view the outcome and whether the opposition will recognize the results or not. Democracy, after all, is not only about winning at the ballot box but more about conceding defeat. That requires recognizing the procedures that lead to the end result of the outcome of elections.
Moreover, how will the rest of the world react and deal with the new regime? At stake are issues to do with the diplomatic, economic and military relationship with Western countries led by the United States and world institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are considering lending a crucial loan to Egypt. A new arrangement seems to be in place to accept the new regime on the basis of the fact that it came to power after free elections. This will encourage an alliance between the rising Islamists and the military who will be provided help from the outside world to ensure some degree of regional stability.