Friday, July 5, 2013

Ron Smith: Experiments in Democracy

Do recent events in Egypt constitute a failure of democracy, or a triumph of civil society, or a bit of both? It is hard not to be ambivalent as the latest iteration of the ‘Arab Spring’ plays out in Cairo and around the country.  On the one hand, it is scarcely a year since Mr Morsi became president, after what seemed to have been free and fair elections, and now the Army has intervened and he is in military custody (with other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood). 

The parliament that was elected somewhat earlier than the president, has also been dismissed and the constitution it devised has been set aside (see my ‘On Constitutions’, of last December).  There will now be a new constitution and fresh elections for a national assembly, at some time in the future, but meanwhile Mr Morsi and his Brotherhood look headed for jail, where they were before the overthrow of President Mubarak.

It may be relevant to note here that the newly-installed interim government will be headed by the Chief Justice of the Egyptian Constitutional Court, Adlai Mansour, and will include Mohamed ElBaradei (former International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General and Nobel Prize winner), together with various religious leaders, Christian and Muslim.  In passing, it also might be observed that the US managed to get on the wrong side of the great public debate here, maintaining its support for the Morsi government whilst that debate was being lost on the streets.  Very late on, US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, managed to produce a storm of anti-American protest with the observation, “Some say that street action will produce better results than elections.  To be honest, my government and I are deeply sceptical.”  I guess US policy will be changed today.  They will be wanting to find a way around a standing policy prohibition on financial support to military coups.

So what does all this tell us about democracy?  Well, perhaps it tells us that we need to avoid a simplistic association between ‘democracy’ and elections.  After all, they had ‘free elections’ (at the urging of the European community) in Gaza in 2006.  This brought Hamas to power and they followed up their electoral success by throwing members of the defeated party (Fatah) from high windows.  There have been no elections in Gaza since and nor are there likely to be.

Less dramatic (so far) are events in Turkey, where a democratically-elected government has been progressively dismantling the secular modern state that Mustapha Kamal (Kamal Attaturk) so laboriously established following the First World War.  Here, too, civil society has awoken to challenge the progressive imposition of a religious authoritarian state.  It will be interesting to see how the newly-provoked educated and middle classes get on with their challenge to their long-serving Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan.  The fact that he has recently described them as ‘terrorists’, does not bode well.

The bottom line here, in both Turkey and Egypt (Gaza is a hopeless case) is that, at its heart, ‘democracy’ is a compromise between ‘political efficiency’ (getting things done) and protecting the interests of minorities.  Elections are a potent way of effecting compromise but reformers and utopians need to be careful about what they seek to impose, especially if it is not clear that bad decisions can be reversed.

There is little dispute that the Egyptian economy is in total disarray. Violence and uncertainty have driven the tourists away but it seems very clear that the attention of the government has been elsewhere: towards the creation of the Sharia state.  Scarcely anybody in Egypt can now earn a living, or provide for their family, and an increasing proportion of the population, who were two years ago supportive of the movement to end the Mubarak dynasty, are now more concerned about a loss of fundamental freedoms.

A military coup is not a good look.  It can frequently presage a long period of repression and loss of civil rights, and, probably, economic stagnation as the authoritarian state stifles enterprise.  On the other hand, this military coup does give Egypt an opportunity to start again, to learn from recent mistakes and to establish democratic institutions that serve the people, rather than the ideology of those who may be able to grab the levers of power.  In the circumstances, it may be worth the experiment, particularly if enough time is allowed for civil society en masse to coalesce into political parties, which can evolve policies and effectively fight elections.  This would enable the army to retire from politics and for Egyptian citizens to move on to a more matured political regime that would not require them to take to the streets at regular intervals.


Brian said...

Experiments in Democracy.
The turmoil in Egypt and its subsequent outcome cannot really come as much of a surprise to many in the Western World, One has only to read the history of Egypt since the advent of Nasser, resulting in the Suez debacle and the huge influence behind the scenes that the Army possesses in Egyptian life.
Realistically the West should welcome this new regime, although as Dr Smith points out it has supplanted a legitimate elected Government; albeit that the eventual aim of this administration was to establish an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have been a thorn in the side of most Egyptian Governments; and they caused the Allies trouble during the campaigns in North Africa with their strong ties to Nazi Germany.
It was interesting to note in Dr Smith’s blog on the U.S. Ambassador’s comment regarding street action and “getting results”. Still this lady was not the first to get a reverse reaction, even Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his remarks made thirteen years before the Civil War when he stated
“Any people any-where, being inclined, and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form another which suits them better”
The irony was that when the Southern States took Lincoln at his word, Lincoln (then President) called for a hundred thousand volunteers to put down an insurrection!
Since the days of the “Flower Power Era” demonstrations to influence and frighten Politicians have become a rule, rather than the exception. A case in point in being our Springbok Riots, when a violent minority broke the law on many occasions; and more to the point, got away with it.
Perhaps one solution would be to follow the advice of a certain 1920’s advertising magnate who advocated dropping thousands of mail order catalogues over non democratic inform them just what they were missing out on.
Just an idea, after all envy is the birthplace of ideas!

Anonymous said...

Ron - the entire Arab world (and the Persians) seems to be in turmoil.

About ten years ago the UN produced Arab human development reports on the economic and social conditions in 22 Arab countries.

I took the time to read the reports and they are a devastating account of the backwardness of the region, and of the effect that Islam, in all its forms - political, religious and secular - helps to produce.

But then, I'm not sure democracy is the answer for them, or us.

As Churchill said, as a way of organizing society, democracy seems to be the best of various bad options, but politically we have been lurching leftward at an alarming rate, and I wonder where we might end up.

Stuart L