Elections, coups and democracies: Learning from the events in Egypt

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporting member of rabble.ca.

My friend, Dr. Chris Giannou, was back in his hometown, Toronto, last month to help lead a Red Cross training session on disasters. He lives on the Greek coast now and has spent the last 40 years in virtually every global war zone, about half of that in the Mideast. He did his surgical training in Cairo. I asked if Egypt had squandered what it won during the Arab Spring. "Tsk, tsk, tsk," he said, wagging his finger. "The whole Arab world has come unfrozen. It won't go back to where it was -- because change can happen now."

That's what we tend to miss, looking at events like Egypt's upheaval this week. The Arab Spring wasn't an event with a result to preserve, it was a piece of process. Same for democratization. It isn't the equivalent of elections, they're just part of that process, for better and sometimes worse. This is easy to say and hard to grasp, since we tend to view events through the filter of fixed definitions and standards. You could see it on CBC coverage Wednesday.

Andrew Nichols kept asking guests, "Is this a military coup?" i.e., bad and undemocratic. But coups can be pro-democratic, like Portugal's in 1974. It's clear the Egyptian military have their own goals but they wouldn't have acted without a huge popular -- i.e., democratic -- call to do so. Ian Hanomansing told someone in Tahrir Square, "Here in Canada we hold democracy in such high regard and you had an elected president . . ." But that's assuming the equation between democracy and elections, which isn't so obvious, even "here." Rosemary Barton averred, "it takes a long time for democracy to take root." But what if it isn't like a tree you buy at the garden centre and replant at home. What if it's a seed that may sprout and grow in different ways -- or fail?

People in the Arab world don't genuflect before "our" democratic definitions. They have their own, and the gold standard is their experience two years ago when they went fearlessly into the streets to depose tyrants. That wasn't for the sake of elections, it was for democracy, not the same thing, though they may be related. Or not: some youth central to those victories scorned the elections that followed; in Tunisia there was a group called Bloggers Against the Election. The point is the process is still unfolding; there may be times when elections are undemocratic and coups aren't. Whoops, I feel like I just said something risky, maybe I should stuff it back in my mouth.

It is risky in fact, and can lead to awful results. But it feels less risky if you don't assume the definition of democracy or human progress has reached any fixed end points. Most cultural activity only really began 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, as a teenager recently told me; it would be odd to assume anything is complete.

In that light, it's we who should uncouple from fixed definitions and learn something from their openness. Even western critics of the coup, for instance, say that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi got only 51 per cent of the votes but acted as if he could ignore the rest. Yet Stephen Harper got under 40 per cent last election and has proceeded with much of his agenda anyway.

In fact, there are signs a reverse learning process may be starting. It's interesting how the notion that Morsi "understood democracy as only being about elections" (Reuters) began slipping into stories. CBC's Barton did note that you "can ask if elections equal democracy." Even Barack Obama told Morsi to remember they aren't the same. The next stage would be to apply that insight to ourselves, not just them.

So I disagree with gloomy assessments of this week's turn of events in Egypt. Like a Guardian editorial saying Egypt "has returned to where it was two years ago." Or the Star: "It subverts the Arab Spring's most important gain: rule by the people." At the least the jury is out on that. Democracy isn't a classic script that actors must memorize and never deviate from. It's more like improv, shifting and reconstituting. Or as Chris might say: "Tsk, tsk, tsk -- "

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Zeinab Mohamed/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.