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Egypt: from rebel to revolution?


There are many ways to interpret the 30 June protests and Morsi’s exit. However, the western media and commentaries have generally taken the formal democratic approach. According to this perspective, president Morsi was democratically elected and thus the legitimate president of Egypt. The recent intervention of the Egyptian Armed Forces was accordingly interpreted as a military coup against a legitimate government.
Formal democracy and its grievances
That the mainstream outlets in the west – such as the BBC, CNN, New York Times, etc. – have adopted this approach did not come as a surprise. From the revolution’s very beginning in January 2011, western diplomats were keen to reduce the demands of the Egyptian revolution to a call for formal democracy.
This push for the implementation of formal democratic procedures was part of the ‘Orderly Transition’ paradigm. This paradigm was espoused by the United States as soon as they finally realized they could no longer hang onto their old strongman, Hosni Mubarak, during the last days of the 2011 revolution[i]. This paradigm basically insisted on a top-down political reform in contrast to a bottom-up overthrow of dominant political and economic institutions and practices, in order to deflect the demands of the revolutionary movement. Street politics and the emergence of grassroots democratic structures were to be contained by the ballot box. As long as free and fair elections were held, the spectre of authoritarianism could be exorcised.
The problems with this formal democratic approach became evident when Egyptians were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, Mohammed Morsi (the Muslim Brotherhood candidate) and Ahmed Shafiq (who represented the old NDP regime) in the second round of the presidential elections. Whilst the more progressive revolutionary forces had attained a greater share of the vote in the first round of elections, this vote was split between three different candidates (Hamdeen Sabahi, Khalid Ali and Abdel Moneim Abd El-Fotouh). Unwilling to put their eggs in an ex-NDP basket, Morsi won with a small margin of the vote (though there are allegations that Shafiq had in fact won the elections). This strengthened the sense among many Egyptians that although the presidential elections were ‘procedurally correct’, formal democracy did not necessarily represent the will of the people – and certainly not the will of the revolution.
By discursively reducing the demands of the Egyptian revolution to a call for electoral democracy, western spokesmen and domestic elites ensured that more substantive reforms – such as an overhaul of the entire socio-economic system – were dropped by the wayside. By focusing only on the second element of the revolutionary demand for “bread, freedom and social justice”, they turned a blind eye to the profound systemic socio-economic injustices that underpinned the mass uprisings not only in Egypt but across the region.
These injustices are persistently stimulated and aggravated by the neoliberal economic order and international financial institutions – such as the IMF and World Bank. Framing the “Arab Spring” merely in terms of a formal democratic “transition” allowed for a continuation of neoliberal reform in Egypt (which previously underpinned Mubarak’s crony capitalism in Egypt). Despite evidence to the contrary, economic liberalization was presumed to coincide with political liberalization.

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