by Michael Neumann


So, the naïve, politically immature, ill-educated, provincial Egyptian people have had their say, and taken their first baby steps in the long road to understanding democracy.

I refer, of course, to the upper middle class opposition who never cease to repeat that Morsi has no mandate and the constitution no legitimacy. These complaints appear to rest on misconceptions about what democracy is. It’s a system where everyone gets to vote, and a majority of votes determines the outcome. A majority is 50% plus 1.

The reason for this system of majority rule – so understood for at least four hundred years – is that it constitutes a clear and practical decision procedure for the determination of popular will. Here are two notions which may seem to describe clear procedures, but don’t: a ‘substantial majority’, and a majority with a ‘good turnout’. Such procedures suffer from indeterminacy – what majority is substantial enough? what’s a good turnout? When these questions are left open, it is a recipe for special pleading and just what isn’t wanted – indecision.

These other procedures are also, in some circumstances, arguably undemocratic. Suppose a 2/3 majority is required on a vote for Yes or No, and, oh, say 63% of the voters favor Yes. Then the minority of voters determines the decision against a majority of voters. That doesn’t sound like an expression of popular will.

But what about abstentions? In the first place, in a decision-making process, you can’t count actions that don’t select alternatives. Suppose I abstain. Did I do so because I thought the process was illegitimate? Did I do so because I thought the process was legitimate, but I couldn’t make up my mind? Did I do so because I thought my abstention would do more damage to my political opponents than voting against them? Did I do so because I couldn’t get out of bed? Did I do so because I misunderstood when or where or how I should vote? Did I do so because I just didn’t care? With all these open questions, anyone can attribute any significance they like to my abstention. The idea that some particular interpretation should be privileged is just laughable.

This is not to say that low turnout is desirable. The higher the turnout, the clearer the expression of popular will. But everyone is free to vote or not to vote, and if they want things unclear, or don’t care, so be it. The alternative is to invalidate low-turnout elections, which is a non-starter. A nation needs to make decisions, and if the decisions are to be made at all, they must be made on the basis of the deciders. And of course many other features of democracy are desirable – among other things, informed discussions in which no one feels constrained from expressing his opinion, good will all around, responsible media, appropriate funding for all political parties, good weather on election day. Democracies can be better or worse, but they are no less democracies for all that.

Elections do have to be free and fair according to real-world standards. In Egypt’s elections, as in countless other elections in many other nations at all stages of development, there were irregularities. It is essential that irregularities invalidate elections only if they are exceptionally extensive. Otherwise, once again, there is no decision procedure: anyone could deliberately commit an irregularity and undermine the whole process. Each person would be, in that very real sense, a dictator. This is perhaps the most prominent outcome to be avoided in any democracy.

Perhaps this makes democracy undesirable. If one doesn’t like a democratic system, then perhaps it is better to fight for some other system – a monarchy, an patrician ‘republic’, a dictatorship, a one-party state – than to pretend one is a democrat.

I hope this little lesson in democracy will not fall on deaf ears – that is, I hope the secularist politicians, journalists, professors, bloggers and generally clever minds of Egypt’s privileged classes will get it. Morsi won. The Brotherhood won. If you don’t like it, organize, don’t bullshit. The Brotherhood is far more vulnerable in power than out of it: as many have pointed out, no government is going to cure anything like all Egypt’s ills. Ill-founded pontificating about democracy is just bad focus and a waste of opportunity.