Egyptian democracy’s predictable unpredictability
“Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill
In a little less than two weeks, Egyptians will choose their first new president since Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981. Before we talk about the contenders as selected by Egyptians in the first round of voting in May, let’s pause to consider how far Egypt has come in an incredibly short period of time.
Egypt has seen its thousands of years on the planet pass by without a democracy. Then, over the course of 18 days, it found itself with a revolution partly fueled by digital tools like Twitter that deposed a president (since sentenced to life in jail). Objects of the world’s attention, the protesters found themselves splashed across the pages of Time magazine, a symbol of the power of change that even oppressed citizens can have when they make the most of their moment and refuse to give up. So why the recent disappointment?
For starters, take the outcome of the first round of voting: The two remaining candidates aren’t exactly the liberal-minded leaders the West had been hoping for. One, Ahmad Shafik, idolizes the deposed Mubarak – whom he briefly served as prime minister – calling him a “role model.” The other, Mohamed Morsi, comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, the moderate (for Egypt) Islamist association that for years has run something like a social services agency combined with a religious militia, but is now evolving into a political organization. That’s a key understanding of the Brotherhood – generations of Egyptians may have fond feelings for it, but it’s nascent as a party or electoral force, since Mubarak and the military ruled the state for so long.
While outsiders could argue that the two finalists are the worst possible choices from the first round, the reality is, shockingly, Egyptians didn’t much care about this vote. Turnout, for a country we might think would leap at the chance to exercise democracy, came in at an anemic 46 percent. Most Egyptians aren’t actually clamoring for the kind of radical change we in the West might expect. Some may actually welcome the return of a Mubarak-like figure – kleptocracy worked perfectly fine for a sizable chunk of the population. Tourism was booming, bread was on the table, and the ideology and value set of the government – at least as espoused, if not as practiced – was consistent with commonly held beliefs.
For that reason, no matter which candidate wins, what we’re likely to see is a conservative-leaning but largely ineffectual government. But that government will, to every appearance, have been fairly elected. Now, if you’re wondering why the Egyptians would make such timid-seeming choices after their momentous revolution, that’s an altogether different question. Consider the state of the electorate. There is an elite – and there is everyone else. The middle class in Egypt is far behind the middle class in other developing economies in the world, like Brazil and Mexico. There’s no need for politicians to court them, because they can win on a conservative platform with just the support of the elite and the rank and file. It will take years for the middle class to become a potent political force, a voting bloc that can decide an election, and push leaders to more moderate, open policies. And depending on the shape of the government and reforms there, such a change may, of course, never happen at all.
In short, while no one is particularly thrilled with the aftermath of the revolution in Egypt, it’s not the worst realistic outcome either. A country that has been ruled by autocrats for years – “presidents” that have swiped power from each other as if the country were little more than a backdrop for Game of Thrones or some minor Shakespearean play – is on the cusp of a democratically elected government. Just because it’s not the government the world thought Egypt would elect does not mean it’s not the right government for Egypt, for now. Only time, and the actions of Egypt’s next president, can answer that question for the world. And Egypt is about to learn the sage truth of Prime Minister Churchill’s quote.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
ILLUSTRATION: Elsa Jenna/REUTERS