The trouble with democracy, from Cairo to Johannesburg

December 6, 2012

The return of protests, tanks and death to the streets of Cairo this week is harrowing. So is the power of the rampant conspiracy theories that cause Muslim Brotherhood members and their secular opponents to sincerely believe they are defending Egypt’s revolution. Both sides are behaving abominably.

Criticisms of President Mohamed Mursi’s foolish and unnecessary power grab and rushed constitutional process are legitimate. So are complaints that the country’s secular opposition is poorly organized, lacks majority support and refuses to compromise.

Barring a surprising change in direction, Egypt’s experiment with democracy is headed toward failure.

The country’s flawed constitution will likely be ratified in a referendum on Dec. 15. A frustrated and distrustful opposition will boycott subsequent parliamentary elections. Mursi will lead a “soft authoritarian” government similar to that of former President Hosni Mubarak. Small opposition parties will exist, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance of the state, politics and society will never be in doubt.

U.S. officials ‑‑ ever eager for stability in the Middle East ‑‑ will turn a blind eye and establish a “working relationship” with Mursi.

“I think the impulse of most American administrations is to show up in an Arab country and say, ‘Take me to your leader,’ ” Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor and leading expert on Egypt, told me in a bleak interview today. “I don’t think we have many alternatives. The United States is not in the position to back a military coup or the opposition.”

Brown is correct. Yes, the United States has some economic leverage in Cairo, but in general America remains radioactive in post-Mubarak Egypt. After 40 years of the U.S. backing Egyptian strongmen who made peace with Israel, Washington is hugely mistrusted.

A September 2012 Gallup Poll found that 82 percent of Egyptians opposed the country’s government accepting any economic aid from the United States. By comparison, 42 percent of Egyptians surveyed ‑‑ roughly half that number ‑‑ opposed the country’s peace treaty with Israel.

Let me be blunt to those who think more “American leadership” is the answer. A U.S.-backed military coup ‑‑ which it is doubtful the U.S. could engineer – would radicalize Islamists across the region and be an enormous gift to al Qaeda. Similarly, if Washington openly backs the country’s secular opposition, those opponents will be viewed as American stooges and lose popular support.

“A much more effective strategy for the United States is to call for a dialogue between Mursi’s government and the opposition behind closed doors,” said Dalia Mogahed, the American scholar who conducted the Gallup survey. “The U.S. coming out publicly on the side of the opposition will be used against them.”

The only small cause for hope is that Egypt’s struggles are not unprecedented. Other countries have undergone agonizing and turbulent transitions as well. Thomas Carothers, an expert on transitions to democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that what is occurring today in Egypt is typical when a long-disenfranchised group gains power. Distrustful and insular after years of struggles, it is often reluctant to share power and still views itself as deeply vulnerable.

Carothers said Egypt’s struggle mirrors the difficult transition still under way in Bolivia. Seven years after Evo Morales was elected that country’s first president of indigenous descent, a tense “fundamental rebalancing of political power” is still playing out in Bolivia. The country’s traditional elite and the indigenous movement still struggle to trust each other and share power. Bigoted arguments that democracy does not work in the Arab world do not apply in Egypt.

“There is nothing particularly Arab about what is happening,” Carothers said. “It’s not an Islamist issue per se.”

There is another international comparison that should give the Brotherhood pause, according to Carothers. South Africa’s African National Congress gained a monopoly on power after the country’s first post-apartheid elections in 1994. With no viable opposition, the ANC grew increasingly corrupt as opportunistic figures flocked to the only patronage show in town.

“The party just became a self-sustaining machine,” Carothers said. “People start joining your party out of sheer opportunism.”

That may not matter to the Brotherhood. Its fear of being forced from power it has finally attained it may lead it to become the kind of governing party its members once loathed.

The stark picture painted by Shady HumidShadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, in this excellent piece in Foreign Policy this week, may prove to be true. There may be no common vision in Egypt, as Humid argues; there may be no consensus on what the Egyptian nation should be.

If there is a common ground, the surest way to reach it is for there to be more democracy in Egypt, not less. Yes, the flawed draft constitution is likely to be ratified on Dec. 15. But the opposition should not boycott the vote or subsequent legislative elections. In a best-case scenario, the “no” vote could reach as high as 30 percent, according to Brown. The opposition could then run in subsequent legislative elections. It would not win a majority, but perhaps enough seats to be a viable opposition to the Brotherhood. Two groups that loathe each other would be forced to sit in Parliament together. Time and a desire to win elections might make them compromise and save Egypt’s fading chances at democracy.

PHOTO: Protesters chant slogans against Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi in front of a barbed wire barricade guarded by a tank outside the presidential palace in Cairo December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih


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China’s press loves to point out the failings and hypocrisies of the “advanced democracies”. The China Media Project at Hong Kong University has noted coverage of the phone-hacking scandal gripping Britain that gloats over the “deficit of professional ethics among news professionals in Western media”.

Posted by opendoorloan | Report as abusive

First of all you need to define “democracy” — which contrary to popular belief is NOT the best of all possible worlds — and then compare it the what is happening in the world.

This, for ease of access, is from emocracy


[dih-mok-ruh-see] Show IPA
noun, plural de·moc·ra·cies.
government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
a state having such a form of government: The United States and Canada are democracies.
a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.
political or social equality; democratic spirit.
the common people of a community as distinguished from any privileged class; the common people with respect to their political power.


I am not sure ANY country qualifies under those seemingly simple rules.

Note the US and Canada are listed as examples of democracies. I don’t know enough about Canada to comment on their form of government, but the US is definitely NOT a democracy.

Take a look at the definition of a plutocracy (from the same source).


[ploo-tok-ruh-see] Show IPA
noun, plural plu·toc·ra·cies.
the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.
a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

So, in your opinion, looking at the EXACT definitions of what you are supposedly talking about, which definition fits the US better?

Your article, like virtually 100% of other articles about “democracy” is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Just to clarify, America is not a democracy, and was never supposed to be. It is a constitutional republic. It has some features of a democracy, but is structured differently. The states retain rights, that are intended to ensure that the majority does not dominate the minority. That is why there is an Electoral College and a Senate which has equal representation among all states.

The nation was founded on equality of opportunity, which has served well for 200+ years. The more recent attempt to shift focus on equality of outcomes can only be detrimental; it is contrary to human nature, for one thing. But that is for another post and another time…

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

The author says: ” Two groups that loathe each other would be forced to sit in Parliament together. Time and a desire to win elections might make them compromise and save Egypt’s fading chances at democracy.”

This is wrong. They do not have to sit with each other. They can shoot each other. Mexico has been a Democracy for a century. I don’t see stability or civil rights there.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

There’s an unwritting rule:
When there’s a revolution in a christian country, it will most probably result in a more humane, tolerant and wealthy society.
On the other hand, when there’s a revolution in a Muslim country, it will lead to serious crimes against humanity, slavery, etc etc.
I am not making that up and that’s not islamophobic, it’s simply true, the cause is exactly what Romney said- Inferior culture, and don’t let it make you overwhelmed- that’s the truth, you don’t need to hide it in order to be considered as not racist.

Posted by Empricial | Report as abusive

A Democracy is nothing more than 51% of a population getting to use the machinery of government to plunder the other 49%. As long as there is no “void office” box on the ballot, you’re still a slave to the government. Democracy is not freedom. You just have the opportunity to choose your master for a few years.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

First of all, without Morsi’s move, there’d be no constitution, flawed or not, and a lot of ppl think it is fairly balanced. Secondly, as Clinton’s recent visit showed, the US needs Morsi, more than Morsi needs the US. Thirdly, a Turkey-style solution affords the only possibility for peace in the region. And, last, the president of this country knows that.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

@ stevedebi —

YOu were doing quite well until you said this, which is totally untrue.


“The nation was founded on equality of opportunity, which has served well for 200+ years. The more recent attempt to shift focus on equality of outcomes can only be detrimental; it is contrary to human nature, for one thing.”


This nation was NEVER founded on “equality of opportunity”, nor has it been practiced even once in the 200+ years of our history.

American history is replete with examples of how the wealthy have plundered and raped this nation for ever-increasing profits for themselves.

It is only since the Great Depression, caused by the wealthy excesses of the 1920s — which by the way is EXACTLY what they have managed to do again by manipulating the banking system in their favor — that caused the economy to crash in 1929, that this nation has had a modicum of fair treatment for anyone who isn’t wealthy.

Unfortunately, as the wealthy gain their old power back again, even that minimal amount of protection for the non-wealthy is fast disappearing.

This nation CANNOT survive a return to the good old days of the wealthy class, which was ALWAYS achieved at the expense of everyone else.

When you begin to talk about “The more recent attempt to shift focus on equality of outcomes can only be detrimental; it is contrary to human nature, for one thing” you are treading on dangerous ground.

You are espousing Social Darwinism(i.e. survival of the fittest), the divine right of kings, the superiority of an individual that is solely determined by their birth, etc. — ALL of which is absolute unmitigated bullshit.

Actually putting this country on a “level playing field” determined solely by one’s talents — instead of the propaganda version of it that has been used in practice — is the cure for this nation’s problems, and your delusions of grandeur.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

When people use words (including democracy) in far off lands
od not expect it to mean the same to them as you. When they use it check what they mean. Democracy is widely used in force makes right nations as a buzz word such as in the Democratic Republic of so and so.

Unless what we in the USA calls democracy was practiced in a nation, the world describes various strange customs in various far off land at various times (slave owning class of ancient Athens).

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Where there is one overwhelming religion do not expect separation of church and state. If the religion says the clergy should run the courts and has a full set of ancient jurisprudence do not expect anything like what we call democracy. Particularly if the jurisprudence describes the role of a King and non-believers.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Democratic success is ultimately predicated on understanding, at some level, you may be wrong. Implementation of this requires meaningful compromise, and a willingness to share power.

An understanding of truth as binary and absolute, as antithetical to healthy democracy.

Posted by skuzmier | Report as abusive

Democracy is very hard to maintain and even more difficult to set up.

For example, here in the USA, one of the two major political parties (GOP) wants to take us back to economic feudalism, scientific illiteracy and a state of perpetual war. And, with the help of billionaires, their allies in the Supreme Court and a deluded public, who can doubt that they will eventually succeed.

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” – H. L. Mencken

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

As a South African I can tell you that the reason the ANC has a monopoly on power is due to the complete lack of any education by huge swathes of the voting public. The cannot read, they cannot do arithmetic, they do not understand there is a link between voting and the misable situation they find themselves in. If they are unhappy they protest (violently normally) but continue to vote ANC under duress or on ridiculous promises. Democracy only works if the population understands how democracy works.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Readers should not confuse “democracy” with “self-government”.

All that democracy provides is the opportunity to select the spokesman for the powerful. It does not change the people who possess or exercise power. Power comes from control of institutions, not from ballot boxes, especially when the same people control all candidates up for selection. A system which permits money or other forms of power to be directed to the support of more than one candidate is a system for rigged pseudo-elections. That is the system in the USA, and it is deceptive, not good.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive