Are Egypt’s Chances for Democracy Dead?

Only a few hours have passed since the Egyptian army removed (now former) President Morsi from power in a coup, but there are already serious concerns about the future of Egypt. After going through two revolutions in less than three years, will the people of Egypt be able to leave the excitement of Tahrir square behind and go about the everyday work of sustaining a democracy?

With the army issuing an ultimatum and throngs of protestors calling for Morsi and his government to step down, Morsi defiantly insisted that he would remain the president, and proposed the formation of a unity government. The army, led by Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, disagreed. After dispatching troops in armored personnel carriers to key sites and taking control of the building housing Egypt’s state TV, the army took Morsi and much of his remaining cabinet into custody, declaring the end of his presidency and suspending the constitution. The huge crowds of anti-Morsi protestors, mostly secularists, rejoiced; some of the pro-Morsi forces sat stunned while others angrily decried the coup.

It is definitely a coup. Despite the hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir square and elsewhere in Egypt, despite Morsi’s numerous attempts to increase his own power at the expense of the judiciary and the constitution, Morsi was democratically elected and the army’s power-grab was clearly unconstitutional. However, the illegality of the army’s actions does not change the facts on the ground. The army, backed by a large portion of the population, is currently in control of the country and has announced that Adly Mansour, head of the Egypt’s Supreme constitutional court, will be sworn in as the interim leader on Thursday. Elections for a new government will be held early. On the opposite side, Morsi still claims that he is the legitimate president of the country, and his supporters are still out in force on the streets of Cairo, rallying against the army’s actions.

It is unclear whether the army will be able to head off violence between these two sides, whether elections will lead to an outcome agreeable to both sides, and ultimately whether Egypt’s fledgling democracy will manage to survive this massive blow. Democracy is more about process than personality; if there is no respect for the constitution, if protests or violence continue to be seen as legitimate ways to gain power rather than the ballot box, there is little hope that a robust democracy will emerge from the current chaos.

To avoid a return Mubarak-like authoritarianism, both sides in this conflict must learn how to parlay their effectiveness at mobilizing massive numbers of protestors into the creation of party structures and mobilizing similar numbers to vote. That, in large part, is the reason that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were able to win elections and consolidate their power. The Brotherhood’s more than sixty years as a banned group allowed it to build organizational edifices, gain institutional knowledge, and train local and national leaders capable of running a country as large and complex as Egypt.

In contrast, the leaders of the Tamarod (meaning “rebel”) movement that motivated the anti-Morsi protests are all thirty or younger and have shown little interest in creating the same political structures. Tamarod spokesman Mahmoud Badr said recently, “In only two months we made this huge accomplishment and people also expect us to create a party program? That’s crazy.” It is indeed a tall order for strong political structures to be created so quickly, but the alternatives are a government controlled by the military, a return to authoritarianism, or continued conflict between unorganized factions.

Even if political parties were to be created, though, the challenges facing them would be so large as to seem almost insurmountable. A new ruling party would take power afraid that it might meet the fate of its two predecessors while also facing a floundering economy. With the country essentially in a state of constant revolution since the 2011 unrest began, tourism and investment numbers have plummeted; the uncertainty has scared foreigners off from visiting or putting their money into the Egyptian economy. Government debt has grown to $40 billion from $30 billion before the Arab Spring even while the wildly popular-yet-expensive energy and food subsidies remained in place. Unemployment remains high, in spite of an educated population. An unsound political environment and an ailing economy are hardly fertile ground for a new government to plant the seeds of democracy — it is all too easy to visualize a scenario in which a large portion of the population, unhappy because of the lack of jobs or rising food prices, and unwilling to wait until the next elections, coalesce to bring the country to the brink of yet another revolution.

As the transitional government assumes power over the next few days and we see whether violence between the anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi camps becomes widespread, Egypt’s future prospects may become clearer. One thing is certain: the democratic system that so many Egyptians say they want will not emerge in a state of perpetual revolution. An official government Facebook account said it well in a statement released just hours before the army’s takeover: “there is no democracy without the ballot box.” The unwillingness of large portions of the Egyptian public to trust in the democratic process — coupled with the fact of the subsequent military coup — represents a setback not only to Egypt’s prospects of becoming a democracy, but also to its chances of becoming a functioning state again.