The deepening turmoil in Egypt provides some sharp lessons on the potential pitfalls of winner‐takes-‐all democracy in deeply divided societies. Democracy is in essence a convention in terms of which competition for political power is resolved by elections - rather than by violence. Participants agree that the party or parties that win the election can form the government and rule the country for a prescribed period until the next election.
However, it is an equally indispensable requirement for democracy that the victorious electoral party should respect and uphold the civic and political rights of the losers - including their right to participate freely and fairly in future elections.
The system works well in relatively homogenous societies where parties are elected into government on the basis of their policies - rather than on ethnic or religious affiliation. However, it does not work so well in societies that are deeply divided by racial, religious and linguistic distinctions. In such societies minorities often find themselves in a situation of perpetual exclusion from government because of their inability to secure parliamentary majorities in general elections. Dominant majorities - often spurred on by hubris or ancient factional grievances - are too often inclined to ignore the interests of minorities and to impose their own will and agenda on society as a whole.
This is exactly what happened in Egypt under Mohamed Morsi following his election as president last year by a slender majority of 51.7% to 48.3% over his opponent Ahmed Shafiq - who was Mubarak's last Prime Minister. One of the first priorities of the newly-elected parliament was to establish a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. However, 66% of the members of the assembly were Islamists. The Constituent Assembly was declared unconstitutional and dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court in May last year because it was not sufficiently representative. A new Constituent Assembly was established comprising a broader cross-section of society - but still including a built-in Islamist majority.
As a result several opposition parties - as well as representatives of the country’s eight million Coptic Christians - boycotted or walked out of the assembly. The leader of one of the parties expressed the view that "the constitution should not reflect the majority, it should reflect all forces in society… There is an attempt to possess everything… Possessing the constitution is the most dangerous thing."
Morsi compounded the fears of non-‐Islamists on 22 December last year when he granted himself virtually dictatorial powers to "defend the revolution". He decreed that his decisions were immune from judicial review and barred the courts from dissolving the constituent assembly and the upper house of parliament. By so doing he fatally breached the convention underlying democracy and rendered his government illegitimate -‐ even though he had secured a slight majority in the presidential democracy.
Although Morsi subsequently tried to rescind his seizure of dictatorial power it was too late. He had unleashed a backlash from non-‐Islamists -‐ including the powerful military -‐ that ultimately swept him from power. Now, the new military-‐backed regime is showing every sign of further aggravating the divisions in Egyptian society by trying to suppress the Islamists -‐ who make up more than half the population. The prognostication is dismal -‐ with a deepening division of society along sectarian lines -‐ similar to the vicious cycle unleashed in 1992 in Algeria when the military ousted a democratically elected Islamist government. The ensuing civil war left 100 000 people dead.
The problem may lie in the manner in which the Egyptians decided to write their new constitution. In an article that FW de Klerk wrote for the influential US journal, Foreign Policy, in February 2011, he suggested that emerging Arab democracies might learn from the South African experience of constitution-‐making. How, he asked, would these post-‐ revolutionary states "be able to make the transition from the discredited authoritarian regimes of the old order to new, democratic dispensations that people throughout the region are demanding?" The obvious solution is to hold an election -‐ "but with which participants, on what basis and within what constitutional framework?"
De Klerk suggested that the South Africa’s constitutional negotiations of the early 90s might have some relevance. "During the South African process parties with long histories of hostility and suspicion came together and forged a new constitutional dispensation under the most difficult circumstances." The strengths of the South African approach were its inclusivity, its genuine attempt to accommodate the reasonable interests of all parties, including minorities; and the strong provisions that it established to entrench the Constitution as the supreme law.
The Egyptians might, in particular, have learned from the ingenious device that our negotiators developed to ensure, on the one hand, that the interests of the minorities would be adequately protected in the new constitution, while on the other hand, that the final constitution would be adopted by a duly elected body. This was achieved by enabling all parties with significant support to reach agreement on an interim constitution in terms of which the first fully representative elections would be held. The duly elected representatives, sitting as a constituent assembly, then adopted the final constitution - but within the constraints of 34 immutable principles that had been incorporated in the minority-approved interim constitution.
It was this historic compromise that laid the foundations for our new non-racial democracy. Unfortunately, it is now under pressure. The goal of the "second phase" of the National Democratic Revolution that the ANC announced last year is to dismantle the compromises that were at the heart of the 1993-96 settlement. There is a disturbing tendency on the part of the majority to exclude minorities; to ignore their reasonable concerns and to undermine the constitutional institutions that protect their interests. All this is going hand in hand with increasing attempts to impose the ideological prescripts and racial agenda of the majority on the country’s permanent minorities. By so doing, the majority is diluting the conventions that underlie and legitimise our democracy and is deepening the divisions that have bedeviled so many other multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic societies.
The lessons that the Egyptians can learn from our experience are the need for inclusivity, toleration, compromise, and strong and effective institutions to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law. They are lessons that South Africa taught the world between 1993 and 1996 ‐ but which it is now in the process of forgetting.
By Dave Steward: Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation