Egypt’s deposed head of state, Mohammed Morsi, criticized the anti-Morsi bandwagon for creating petition that, apparently, garnered twenty-two million signatures. Morsi contended, in a press conference, that the utility of petition to remove an elected official was “undemocratic” and that “[it] is not how democracy works.” Proponents echoed the similar concerns. I would like to retort on Morsi’s contention.
Morsi’s notion of democracy, as it seems at first glance, places elections at the forefront of ‘democratic method.’ To get an idea of what ‘a democratic method’ really means, it would be necessary to look at the etymology of the word democratic; its roots consist of the Greek word “demokratia“—which consists of the prefix “demos” and suffix “kratias,” meaning “populace” and “rule” respectively. From that, one can deduce the meaning: to govern by popular will. And it would be safe to infer that any method which governs through ‘popular will’ suffices to be ‘democratic.’ I do not see the word “election” anywhere in that etymological analysis. That is the case most likely because creating an electoral system—or voting districts (termed “ridings” in Canada)—and having the constituents —being those who reside in the district/riding—elect a representative to be conferred important civic duties such as legislating law to address the myriad of societal issues, is not the be all and end all;it is not the only method of democracy (political science majors would recognize that what I have just described is representative democracy). As it seems from Morsi’s criticisms, he believes that holding an election, at pre-established, consistent and predictable intervals, is the only method of effectively expressing the will of the majority (the populace)—that is, the only ‘democratic method.’ Not quite.
Petitions indeed reflect grievances and, like ballots and polls, they certainly depict will. So what exactly is undemocratic about Egypt’s anti-Mori petition? There are, of course, differences between formal elections, which are enshrined in law, and informal petitions, which often have no legal basis. First, unlike most petitions, elections are amply proceduralized to mitigate voter fraud or impropriety. Second, there is no risk of posing leading questions in an election; the same cannot be said for informal polls or petitions, where a leading question can mislead signatories. Third, and above all, most elections are accompanied by campaigning, moderated debates, and political discourse—a commonplace that ensures voters are informed and make informed decisions as to which candidate should sit in the highest executive office. Petitions, on the other hand, hardly contain details beyond a mere, standard-size, page or two, and often do not appear impartial; their presentation of facts may be one-sided. Such differences, between a customary elections and petitions, question the credibility of petitions; they evoke doubt as to whether the method actually depicts will—I admit, in the case of misled signatories, it would not accurately depict will. However, I argue that if the preparation of a petition is carried-out meticulously, that the petition itself is constructed with impartiality in mind—by showing every side of the prism—and if written to avoid misleading questions, then a petition would have accurately depicted will.
Most of the petitions I have encountered did not embody the criteria above, but elections are imperfect too. For one example, one aspect of elections that has been problematic in the striving for democracy is voter turnout rates. A dismal turnout would be contradictory to democratic method. If, hypothetically, only twenty of voters submitted ballots in a population size equivalent to the population of California, then is the will of the majority really depicted? If you think twenty voters constitute 51 percent of 36-million, I would urge you to quadruple-check your math. Of course such a turnout is unrealistic, although that is precisely why it is called a ‘hypothetical.’
If the proponents of deposed Morsi assert that the utility of a petition is contrary to customary practices, then I may give them that; yes, the anti-Morsi petition was probably contrary to such customs—point well taken. However, the careful and proper utility of a petition to depict popular grievance is, undeniably, a proper and arrantly legitimate practice through the lenses of democracy. I would even go further and argue that a petition can be likened to recall elections that many U.S. states permit under their state constitutions (such elections can be convened to remove an incumbent Governor). Unless Egypt’s highest law explicitly prohibits the utility of a petition to “depose” or “recall” the incumbent head of state, then there should be no other constitutional barrier. And, as I have demonstrated here, there is no ‘democratic barrier’ when striving for alternative democratic methods. Morsi should learn to embrace petitions.
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