When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech. His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word. His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).
In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy. One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed. The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold. On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one. These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.
Legitimacy matters. In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion. It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression. Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate. A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government. For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.
This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul). In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name. To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name. When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile. To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen). On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name. Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.
In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough. These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody. If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule. Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together. Legitimacy matters.
But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy. So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed. Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement. Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.” When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not. A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death. (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.) In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.
But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice. Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned. Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle. In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious. Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling. Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.
In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms. Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.
In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup. Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box. (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.) Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.” To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms. (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.) But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government. The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war. Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime. The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government. Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.
Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square. Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.
The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy. Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries. But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts. In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained. This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it. The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone. They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.
Also about Egypt:
Also about Syria: