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Egypt’s Second Chance

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
July 3, 2013


Events are moving so far and fast in Egypt that it is difficult to follow, much less take stock of, what is transpiring. But stock-taking is needed all the same as what is said and done (and not said and not done) in the coming hours and days could prove crucial to developments there and beyond.

The just-ousted President, Mohamed Morsi, often spoke about how his legitimacy stemmed from victory at the polls. What he failed to understand is that legitimacy in a democracy transcends the ballot box; elections are necessary but hardly sufficient. In the way he ruled over the past year, Mr Morsi squandered his legitimacy and his opportunity alike. Millions of Egyptians protested in the streets as they felt excluded from meaningful political participation and fearful that Egypt's first real election would prove to be its last.

A larger, related point about democracy is this: it is about constraints as much as it is about power. Majorities must look out for and protect minorities. Parts of the government must respect other parts; government must accept limits on what it can determine for its citizens, the society, and the economy. Such checks and balances take time to develop and put down roots. Egypt is the essence of an immature democracy; it is vulnerable to being hijacked, as Mr Morsi appeared all too eager to do.

So the military acted. Some will term what it did as a coup d'etat. But this would be inaccurate. This political intervention came in response to a crisis; it was not its cause. Just as important, the events of recent days were not a power grab by Egypt's military. The country's soldiers wisely show little appetite for rule. They are entrusting temporary power with judicial authorities and setting up a timetable for political transition. This is as it should and must be.

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