After the recent ousting of Mohamed Morsi from power in Egypt, there has been considerable debate on the topic of how we should refer to what happened. For a majority of Western commentators, this clearly was a military coup d’état, since it removed a legitimately elected government. Others, however, have argued that the military intervention was justified by its popular support, so we should strip it of the negative connotations associated with the French term. According to the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, “Democracy is about more than elections. Legitimacy means more than the ballot box, it means the power of the people.” In that case, we shouldn’t consider this a coup, but simply the military acting on behalf of the people, who have spoken by going out on the streets.
The legitimacy of any democratic government may fundamentally lie with the people, but the problem here is in understanding how “the popular will,” or any of its related terms, can be determined. Firstly, how do we know when it is the people, rather than just some people, speaking? And secondly, how do we figure out what “the people” are actually saying? Trying to figure out the answer to these questions puts into doubt the whole use of the idea of “the people.”
It is not easy to determine when “the people speak.” The Egyptian protests at the start of July were certainly impressive but it is easy to view the numbers with skepticism. While the military claims there were 14 million people protesting in Egypt at the time of the coup, the rebel group Tamarod claims 22 million signatures in a petition to oust Morsi. Not only do these numbers seem exceptionally large for a country of 84 million, as I have personally heard from people in Egypt saying that at times, people would sign their name as much as 11 times. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood still commands widespread support in Egypt, as evidenced by recent resistance, only reinforces the difficulty in establishing whether “the people” are speaking.
This is a problem that can generalize to any other situation of widespread social unrest. Just because thousands, or even millions, of people have gone to the streets to protest does not imply that their cause is supported by a majority. It might seem obvious, but it is important to remember that for every person going out on the streets, there are many more staying at home and they don’t necessarily agree with those who are protesting. Consider for example the protests last month in Turkey. They clearly had an anti-government bias, complaining against the erosion of the secular Turkish state by the Erdogan administration. The intensity with which the estimated 2.5 million protesters went to the streets would seem to indicate widespread discontent with the government. Still, polls continue to show 53.5% of the population supporting his government. There are cases, of course, where opinions are nearly unanimous. Eighty percent of the Brazilian population supported the protests taking place there, about twice as much as in Turkey. But this sort of nearly unanimous support for a social movement is rare in almost any country.
The question becomes more complicated if we try to figure out what exactly is being said. Although it is clear that the protesters in Egypt wanted to remove Morsi from office, it is not quite obvious what they want after that. In Turkey and Brazil, the voices are even more blurry, with the voicing of all sorts of contradictory demands. In Brazil, it is unclear what impact recent protests will have and exactly what kinds of reforms will satisfy the protesters. If the people have spoken, then they should surely work on improving their diction.
It is easy for commentators to interpret social protest in any way they want. Similarly, oppositionists can claim that any protest is a motive for provoking the downfall of a government. The truth is much more indefinite than that. Protesters do not always speak for “the people” — the fact that they were the only people motivated enough to go out on the streets to complain shows that they are not necessarily representative of the populace at large. And nothing dictates that the people who go out to protest share a common vision for what should replace what they are protesting against. Unless they are against specific issues, protests are bound to be ineffective. Furthermore, if we are to use popular protests as a means of assessing ideas such as legitimacy, they become even less reliable.
The view being advocated here can seem a bit gloomy, but it might shed some light on why so many popular movements end up being unpredictable or disappointing. There is no such thing as “the people” speaking – we can’t go all Thatcher-like and say that there is no such thing as a society, but a society can hardly speak in unison. Invoking concepts such as legitimacy by referring to “the people” thus makes little sense. In Turkey and Brazil, the lack of a unified voice will most likely result in little, if any, change. And in Egypt, commentators should be wary of assuming that the crowds at Tahrir Square unanimously support liberal democracy, as they assumed in 2011. The truth is that we must have a much more nuanced view when looking at these mass phenomena and we must understand that more than “the people speaking,” what we usually observe is a cacophony of voices, with a corresponding divergence in demands.