Opinion

The Great Debate

Seeking ‘good-enough-governance’ — not democracy

Only rarely have American leaders been able to reconcile the nation’s democratic values, material interest and national security.

Despite these tensions, promoting democracy has always been a lodestone for American foreign policy. Sometimes its attraction has been weak, very weak, overshadowed by more immediate national security concerns. During the Cold, War, for example, the United States backed many autocratic leaders in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union — or at least for pretending to be democrats. Sometimes, very rarely, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War Two or Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all good things — freedom, security, economic prosperity — have gone together. But these moments are exceptional.

Often the most effective way to increase the chances of freedom in the long run is to improve the prospects for security and economic growth in the short run — rather than pressing for direct democratic reforms.

The failure to successfully move countries along a path to consolidated democracy has many causes. But the most fundamental is this: Achieving a well-functioning, stable democratic system is extraordinarily hard.

Only in a relatively small percentage of countries, and then only in the last century, have people been able to live in a polity where everyone had access to the rule of law, the right to form organizations, the ability to participate in free and fair elections, secure property rights, freedom of expression and worship, open economic opportunities, physical security and a police force and military effectively constrained by civilian authorities.

The surprising force behind change in Cairo

In the space of two years, ordinary Egyptian citizens have organized and led two revolutions that caused two distinct dictatorial regimes to fall. These were street-led revolutions against autocratic regimes that had the support of the U.S. and were thus seen to be invincible.

Although a large majority of Egyptians regard the two events as movements within a single revolution, they were very different in motive and structure, just as the two regimes differed radically from one another. The 2011 revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, was led by the upper-middle class, who recognized the need for large-scale social change to address widespread unemployment, an ailing economy, and rampant political corruption. The more recent revolution was a movement for all, brought about by Mohamed Mursi’s government and its inability to address the root causes of discontent — poverty, inequality, the decline of living standards — and their focus, instead, on securing their own grip on power.

This distinction has been lost on many observers. In the month leading up to the June 30th demonstrations, I was amazed by how a great many of my friends and colleagues outside Egypt regarded events within the country. Most of them believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of the poor and marginalized, and that the only people calling for change were the young, ideological revolutionaries or middle-class Egyptians who had been educated overseas.

Egypt: Protests built on a computer format

Protesters opposing President Mohamed Mursi at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Much commentary and reporting on Egypt’s evolving crisis depicts these events as a relatively balanced conflict between protestors and supporters of toppled President Mohamed Mursi.

The grassroots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, some analysts say, could not have gathered the 22 million signatures it claimed in order to compel new elections. For voters not only had to sign the petitions, they also had to verify their signature by including the number on their national ID cards.

Egypt: Elections do not make a democracy

An election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.  That’s the takeaway from the continuing upheaval in Egypt.

Last year, Mohamed Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected president.  Mursi won with 51.7 percent of the vote — slightly more than the 51.1 percent that Barack Obama won in 2012. Mursi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that had been banned and persecuted in Egypt for 60 years.

Mursi’s overthrow last week put the United States on the spot. Could Washington support the removal of a democratically elected government, even one we did not like?

What just happened in Egypt?

It was not supposed to turn out this way: Only a year after Egyptians freely elected Mohamed Mursi as their president for a four-year term, he was removed by a military decree. This sets in motion a “road map” for a new transitional period leading to another experiment akin to the period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The ambivalence was hard to miss. The sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s storied and influential institution, was there to lend legitimacy to the military decree. But his words told the story. He was compelled by sharia, he said, to choose the lesser of two evils in supporting early elections. But the ambivalence of the thousands of liberals who joined together in the protests at Tahrir Square and other public squares was even greater.

Many had chanted only months ago against military rule. Some had even voted for Mursi because they felt that his opponent Ahmad Shafik was Mubarak’s man. This is not where they wanted to be — but here they were in the millions with some of Shafik’s supporters. Most are not jubilant; they are relieved but worried.

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