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America! And Egypt!

So, there’s been a coup in Egypt. That’s a big fucking deal.

And I was thinking about this yesterday: Mohamed Morsi was the duly elected President, but elections doesn’t mean democracy. Yes, he was elected, and while the election was not free and fair by our standards, it does appear that he was, you know, elected by the populace within our understanding of the word. And there isn’t a mechanism, in the Egyptian constitution that was suspended yesterday, to force early elections to replace (or potentially replace) an unpopular President. To my way of thinking, that means he retains the legitimacy of the popular support that gave him the office. Does that mean that last week he was in some significant sense the head of a democratic government? No. But it does mean that if he isn’t—and by that time he pretty much wasn’t—then there simply isn’t one.

Essam al-Haddad, the national security advisor (until July 2, I’m guessing) posted a note on Facebook (via the Foreign Policy Passport blog, by the way, in case that thing disappears or you just don’t like FB) in which he defends Mr. Morsi and voices outrage that people are trying to oust him in a coup. He writes

Many have seen fit in these last months to lecture us on how democracy is more than just the ballot box. That may indeed be true. But what is definitely true is that there is no democracy without the ballot box.

And he has a point: there is no democracy without the ballot box. The new government of Egypt, whatever it will be, will not be a legitimate democratic government. But surely, this whole sad and frustrating history is overwhelming proof that democracy is more than just the ballot box, and that Morsi’s ballot-box only democracy was not in any way sufficient.

We can list some of the things that are necessary, in addition to that ballot box: a functioning independent judiciary is probably the first one; a constitution that withstands change is another; a body of representatives that actually represents some largish chunk of people outside the government; a popular cultural belief in the value of democracy. Probably dozens of others. I don’t think it’s possible to list everything necessary for a democracy to function, but there are a ton of things we can list, and Egypt seems to be a case that could have been designed to highlight the absence of them all. A functional economy; a widespread cultural respect for human rights (in the Western sense of the term, anyway); an independent and free-ish press.

The ballot box looks small and weak compared with all that stuff, doesn’t it? And yet it is, and yes I’m going to quote Walt Whitman again, our powerfulest scene and show. And it has been that—more powerful than armies and floods and religious fads—because of all the work we have done in between elections. The hard work of democracy, as I always say, is what happens the day after the election. And the day before, and all the other days. The Fourth of July, too.

So, Happy Independence Day, Gentle Readers! Those of you who are Americans, anyway—think of how lucky it is to be in one of those few places that all that work is being done all the time. Is it perfect? No, it’s far, far far from perfect. Isn’t that lucky, too? Because it looks like we have work to do as well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,