Egypt’s popular sovereignty: not an alternative

By David

01 August 2013

A guest post from Ahmad Hosni

Last week, Egypt’s minster of defense and army chief Abdel Fatah El-Sisi called for the nation to rally in support of the army on Friday 26 July, and in doing so grant him the mandate to take all measures necessary to fight terrorism. Three weeks before El-Sisi had deposed president Morsi in what is best described as “coupvolution” and allocated presidential powers to the head of the Supreme Court while retaining jurisdiction in matter of national security. That process went smoothly from the point of view of the military and the anti-Morsi opposition, and indeed turned out to be very popular. The security apparatus started cracking down on Islamists from day one. Why in that case would he seek a further popular mandate for what the military was already doing?

Despite being a key force on the political scene since the ousting of Mubarak this is the first time an army figure has called for mass protests or what is locally known as milioniyat (from millions). In doing so El-Sisi was invoking the people as the ultimate source of political power or what is broadly known as “popular sovereignty.” For someone who has just deposed a democratically elected president the resorting to tropes of popular sovereignty is crucial if one is to sanction his otherwise unconstitutional position. The symbolic weight of protest is appealed to in order to outweigh the representative power of elections.

Popular sovereignty can trump the bureaucratic approach of representational governance. These are two models of democracy, both are predicated on the category of the “people”, but in different ways. Within the workings of representational governance, the “people” is a subject of statistics. It is the sum of partitions in a population. Elections give us precise percentages of the popularity of different political parties, along with that of those who decide not participate. The sum of all these percentages is totality of the people. Under the rubric of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, “people” is always a totality that has no partitions. It is not a subject of numbers but is a totalizing signifier, an approximation of the population that is less than the sum of all parts.

Any claim to the unity of the people entails the partiality of the count since there will always be a portion of the population that will not be counted for the sake of the approximation of the totality of the people. The difference between the overwhelming sway and the substantial portion—between the “people” and faction— is not numerical but discursive. A political narrative that resorts to totalizing the power of the “people” is called populism. Populism is not the elitist view that pits the working class and cognoscenti against each other. As a matter of fact it is completely the opposite in Egypt nowadays where the intelligentsia that has become more reliant on the notion of the people in their discourse than the Islamist opposition that traditionally found its constituency in the working classes. Morsi’s supporters might be a minority but they are still a sizable chunk of the population. However, not only are their numbers now ignored but most importantly, their right to be counted as part of “the people” is now denied to them.

Much of the current political conflict in Egypt is a battle over the right to invoke the “people” to justify one’s political actions and position. All contending parties claim to be representing the people. Morsi has argued that he is the legitimate representative of people’s will since he came to power as the result fair elections. Opponents of Morsi, on the other hand, have argued that sheer number of protesters on June 30 and (to a lesser extent) July 26 is sufficient to overrule the results of any elections results. Yet we do not know any political measure to transduce demonstrations to statistics, let alone to an operational scheme of governance. In the absence of objective measure of counting it is hard to argue who does represent the people and to what extent, the thing that leads to a vicious circle of protest and counter protest.

Over the past three years Egypt has failed to move beyond its revolutionary moment: the manifestation of popular sovereignty (in the form of mass protests) against a cardinal antagonist. Egypt’s revolutionaries, on both the secular as well as the religious side, have time after time parsed their politics solely in terms of the opposition to the enemy of the people, be it the Mubarak regime, the military, the Moslem Brothers, and now terrorism. Even the old regime, in the form of military and former sympathizers, has jumped on the revolutionary wagon. Revolution was replenished in the name of people but with new agents. In the “third wave of the revolution,” as they call it, secular media has ramped up its nationalistic rhetoric against the Moslem Brothers and their regional affiliates, Hamas (and under a banner that many regarded as farcical just a few years ago: the war on terror).

But let’s go back to the original question: why does a general in the prime of his popularity seek further manifestations of popular support? To attribute it to a thirst for power may be too easy an answer. I would argue that, after three years of revolutionary discourse, popular sovereignty has become ingrained as primary source of legitimation for governance. There is hardly any other credible basis of legitimation for political actors to appeal to. No wonder then that the interim president — himself a judge — can now also be found calling for mass rallies.

It is hard to foresee where this will go. The tables have already tuned 360 degrees in the past few weeks and it is impossible to imagine who will become the next enemy of the people should power change hands again. Chantal Mouffe has argued that the rise of the far-right in Europe was the result of the voiding of liberalism by an essentially antagonistic form of politics, under which far-right parties came to prosper.[1] She lamented that politics have become a matter of mere management and called for the reintroduction of the notion of popular sovereignty into politics. In Egypt we have the extreme form of that: politics without the edifice of management of representative democracy coupled with excessive doses of popular sovereignty where either party claims to be the representative of the people. But we do not know what “the people” mean when all that we see are factions. ”The People” is a mercurial notion that is up for grabs by those who have the power to claim it. And what do you get as a result of that? A soft-speaking army general in dark sunglasses and decorations pleading for unrestricted mandate, and scores of revolutionaries who follow.

Ahmad Hosni is a physician and a photographer based in Cairo and Barcelona


[1] Chantal Mouffe, “ The ‘end of politics’ and the challenge of right-wing populism”, in Populism And the Mirror of Democracy, Francisco Panizza, ed., Verso (New York 2005).

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