The mass murders in Egypt, perpetrated by the authorities in the name of restoring order, are a reminder of how long and arduous the battle for true democracy can be. They are also a vivid and bloody illustration of the tendency of many states to abuse their near monopoly of force in society in the name of keeping the peace.
In 1819 in Manchester the Hussars were let loose on a peaceful assembly campaigning for “Liberty” and “Universal suffrage”. Yesterday was the one hundred and ninety fourth anniversary of that protest. On that dark day 11 people died of their wounds at Peterloo and maybe another 7 died in related incidents. British democracy was far from perfect. A Englishman might have his liberty compared to many other societies around the world, but only prosperous freeholders got a vote in elections. There was a rule of law, trial by jury, and innocence until proven guilty, but the legal regime was harsh by modern standards, and society was class ridden.
Though the British establishment exonerated the Magistrates who had taken action to arrest the leaders of the protest and had unleashed the troops, many were rightly shocked and incensed by the barbarism of the slaughter. The widening of the franchise and other democratic reforms followed a few years later. The massacre, mockingly dubbed the battle of Peterloo, became part of the impetus to further democratic reform.
Today states have even more power to control, subvert or harm their citizens. A strong state uses that power sparingly, and only with good cause. A state should be very reluctant ever to shed the blood of its citizens, when it normally has the power to arrest, detain,and punish where appropriate. The dead at Peterloo were a needless scar on the UK’s record. The far bigger massacre in Egypt is a huge tragedy. It will make governing and uniting Egypt that much more difficult. The only good would be if practically all Egyptians reacted in horror at the scale of the deaths, whatever their wishes concerning who should govern. Whether it will lead rapidly to a change of approach and a happier outcome, as in 1830s UK, is more difficult to believe.
For democracy to succeed the majority in office has to govern in the interests of all the people as it sees it. It certainly has to avoid so damaging or suppressing the minority that they lose faith in the system. The opposition has to accept that its way of redress is to win the next election and reverse what it does not like once it has the majority. Government has to allow democratic, noisy, peaceful challenge. Opposition has to accept the ultimate right of the majority to govern until the next election. In the UK case in 1819 the army was brought in by the magistrates with the effective acceptance of the democratically elected government, but it still proved to be a deeply unpopular move which affected politics.