Ancient and modern

Why Egypt needs a Socrates

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

No one seems to know, or is willing to say, whether the Egyptian army’s intervention in Egyptian democracy was legal or not. Presumably that means it was illegal. But who defines the term ‘(il)legal’?

The Athenians, inventors of democracy, decided the dêmos (citizens in Assembly) was sovereign: it made the law, enacted it and revoked it. A famous incident made them realise how dangerous such power could be.


In 406 BC, the Athenians defeated Sparta in a sea-battle. But a storm prevented the sailors picking up their dead. Delight turned to fury, and the eight admirals in charge were brought to trial (two fled). When the Assembly debated how to deal with them, there was initially some sympathy; but later the mood changed, and the Assembly demanded the generals be tried en bloc on a capital charge. It was pointed out that this was illegal, but the majority shouted that ‘it was outrageous that the dêmos should not be allowed to do whatever it wanted’, and threats of reprisals were made against those who disagreed.

Socrates was chairman (for that one day) of the committee which presided at the Assembly. He refused to accept the Assembly decision, saying he would do nothing contrary to the law. But next day’s chairman relented, and the Assembly at once condemned all the generals to death. They were promptly executed.

Some months later, however, the Assembly realised that it had acted illegally because it had not properly revoked the law against en bloc trials but just done what it wanted to do. It therefore lodged proceedings against those who had persuaded it to go down this route. It knew it had done wrong.

Athenians understood that ‘legality’ involved at least some form of due legal process. It is not clear where the Egyptian army stands in relation even to this, let alone to the modern concept of the separation of powers. Where is the Egyptian Socrates when you need him?

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