Things are not looking good for Mohamed Morsi. Egypt's president – the first to be democratically elected in six decades – is floundering after days of mass protests have rocked the country. Protesters, dissatisfied with the president's rule, took to the streets on 30 June, exactly a year after Morsi took power. Their key demand is an early presidential election. Morsi has been pushed into an even tighter spot after the army issued an ultimatum: respond to protesters and reach an agreement by Wednesday (today), or face military intervention. In a defiant speech last night, Morsi reiterated his democratic legitimacy, and said he would not be intimidated by the army: "If the price for legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood to legitimacy and my homeland."
As the unrest escalates, this increasingly seems like a pivotal moment for Egypt's nascent democracy. What will the ramifications for the country's democratic transition be if the army ousts the president? And how much of this boils down to the tension between Islamists and secularists?
First of all, it is important to note that Morsi has made many mistakes in power. Dissatisfaction began last November, when he issued a constitutional declaration giving himself extensive powers. On top of a controversial constitution which disproportionately reflected the Islamist views of his Muslim Brotherhood party, many liberals and revolutionaries took this as evidence that Morsi was aping his predecessor, the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Along with the apparently nepotistic appointment of Muslim Brotherhood figures to key positions in government, the furore over the constitution illustrated what many claim is a monopolistic approach to ruling and a reluctance to share power. Meanwhile, Egypt's ordinary citizens are struggling in the face of economic misery and continued social unrest.
It is undeniable that Morsi has not been a brilliant leader. But is an ousting by the army really the answer? Writing in the New York Times, academic Samer Shehata sums up the country's current predicament thus: "Egypt faces a disturbing paradox: an ostensibly democratic movement is calling on the military, which produced six decades of autocrats, to oust a democratically elected president — all in the name of setting the country, once again, on a path to democracy."
Despite their flaws in government, Islamist parties have won three consecutive elections since 2011. As the country's only real opposition force throughout Mubarak's time in power, the Brotherhood provided social care for the poor and built up strong networks of support despite being denied access to structured political power. This meant it was the only group with any existing infrastructure after the regime fell. The fact remains that Morsi is a democratically elected president. He was drawing on the potency of this when he referred to his "legitimacy" in last night's speech.
On the other hand, despite welcoming elections and winning them, in power, the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted an approach which is far from pluralistic. This has cemented existing discomfort among secularists and liberals about having an Islamist government. When I interviewed Egyptian writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif in 2012, she said: "The Islamist experience is one that we have to go through. Parts of the Brotherhood were there for the poor when nobody else was. They have more credibility than others. For a long time, they were the only opposition. Now they have been elected. You either accept democracy or you don't." This still stands; if a country has voted fairly and selected a leader, then opponents must accept it, even if the results are unpalatable to them. Morsi may have ignored large segments of society and been heavy-handed and divisive in his approach, but he was still elected.
That is not to say, however, that protests should not be allowed. The initial call for early presidential elections was a valid expression of democratic people power. What makes things particularly problematic is the intervention of the army. Using non-democratic means to oust a fairly elected government sets a precedent which would be dangerous at the best of times – and particularly so in a country which is only just laying the foundations of a democratic system. In his New York Times piece, Shehata argues that although secularists and liberals believe in personal freedoms and civil liberties, "their commitment to democratic principles runs skin deep".
Perhaps this is an overly harsh assessment; perhaps not. However, one thing is certain: for Egypt's democracy to truly function, both Islamists and secularists will have to find a way of working with and incorporating each other in government and policy. Both Islamism and secularism represent strong threads of public opinion in the country, and for either to govern without acknowledging the other undermines the fabric of democracy.
It is certainly true that while the latest spate of protests began with a demand for early elections, a wide spectrum of Morsi's opponents have embraced the intervention of the army as the best means of ousting the president. This is somewhat ironic given that one of Morsi's most popular moves over the last year was sacking the defence minister and army chief-of-staff. The military, a trusted and long-standing feature of public life in Egypt, was accused of taking too active a role in the transitional phase following Mubarak's fall.
Whatever the ends, the means matter. Morsi has multiple and varied flaws, but pushing out an elected government through a military coup does not help the cause of establishing a functioning and healthy democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.