The western world is in denial about Egypt as pundits and politicians alike desperately try to boost the failing image of democracy. It’s time to throw in the towel.
President Obama’s remarks this morning fall short of what I, the New York Times and Washington Post among hordes of others believe should be done: cut off aid. We all hope Obama’s dances of concession and moderation work better with Egypt than with Congress.
Remarkably, the facts are pretty well understood by everyone. Politico has summarized them best.
(1) The Arab Awakening was mostly brave, progressive movements started by intellectuals who believed authoritarian regimes (which had essentially nurtured their own development) were no longer needed and were, in fact, inhibiting better economic growth and social progress.
(2) The success of the Egyptian awakening enfranchised millions previously suppressed.
(3) A truly democratic election in Egypt brought extremists to power. The Egyptian election removed power from secularists and gave it to non-secularists.
(4) Almost a year into the new regime and the original revolutionaries began to experience similar repression to what those now in power had experienced for decades previously.
(5) The original revolutionaries demonstrated through really remarkably large peaceful protests that they wanted to replace the current regime.
(6) The Egyptian Army, equally educated, privileged and intellectualized as the original revolutionaries, agreed and staged a coup.
Democracy by the ballot died in Egypt.
Today is cleanup of hundreds killed and thousands more hurt. Tomorrow, prayer day, could be worse.
So … if the ballot box doesn’t work, use guns? The Egyptian army has a lot more guns than any other faction in Egypt, so ergo, the Egyptian army runs the country.
What if the Egyptian army supported the salafists? Like the Iranian army supports the ayatollahs? Would this globalize the situation sufficiently, so that someone with more guns, like NATO, could prevail?
What is an acceptable justification for undoing the workings of democracy? Promotion of “Human Rights”?
Yes, but who defines these rights? Who determines the limits of eminent domain, conscription, voter registration, and all sorts of other civic responsibilities?
What we are being forced to understand is that there is no such practical thing as democracy. Africa – Egypt in particular – has revealed that to the world.
A wonderfully thoughtful Lebanese explains it best:
Democracy is a goal that will never be attained. Eyad Abu Shakra explains that the times “requires us to be both realistic and honest.”
“Honest” that we don’t care the regime came to power legitmately; it must be replaced. “Realistic” that democracy caused this mess in the first place.
His understandings of so-called democracy will shake western politicians to their core, and so they should: There’s no quick trick to best government and democracy is no better a way than communism or authoritarianism. There’s much fallacious in the concept of democracy:
“History is rife with examples of authoritarian regimes that … came to government through the ballot box. In the U.S., four presidents have been able to enter the White House despite securing less overall votes than their electoral opponents.”
No society – not even the U.S. – operates anything near real democracy. While illiteracy undermines most democratic initiatives in Africa, money does in the U.S.
Shakra believes the Egyptian example is the best example in history to prove how bad democracy can be. In the first round of elections Morsi received less than a quarter of the votes. But by the rules of democracy he was cast in a second round contest with an opponent equally unpopular.
It was an election for most Egyptians of “the lesser of two evils.”
How often have we heard that? Does that kind of situation lead to best government? Of course not. Does it at least give us adequate government? Apparently not in Egypt.
Or throughout the entire Levant, according to Shakra, which “is inclined to intolerance, extremism, exclusion, and trading accusations of apostasy.”
Shakra fails, though, when he cites “true democracy” (which I don’t believe possible), “as incompatible with extremism” which is perhaps true enough.
It’s all summed up, Shakra explains, with Winston Churchill’s witticism:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Great. Democracy isn’t very good.
Now, what? Might democracy itself be the “lesser of other evil” forms of government? Not in Egypt. Or in Russia. Or in a superpower that devastated the Middle East with a ten-year war, powered by the democratic convictions of its population and leaders that there were WMD.
There must be something better.
Thank you, Jim.
Really interesting blog post today. Enjoyed it.
Rob Krieger, Web Producer, Barnard College at Columbia University
Adjunct Professor, Computer Science, Business Division, Bloomfield College
Excellent article, Jim!
democracy is vulnerable to mob sentiment, even with those who originated it, the ancient Greeks…
Excellent piece! Is “democracy” working well ANYPLACE in the world? Also, since Capitalism seems to exacerbate have/have not conflicts. Perhaps what we need is a benevolent dictator based in a Socialist environment.
I enjoyed reading your comments today about Egypt. I lived and worked there for 4-1/2 years during the presidencies of Nasser and Sadat, and I try to keep abreast of Egyptian politics. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that a lot of today’s problems can be traced to the heavy hand of our government pushing American-style democracy, free-market economics, and privatization.
Nasser strongly stressed education and significantly increased the literacy rate in Egypt during his presidency. He was also a socialist and nationalized several foreign and local companies in Egypt, often turning their operation over to the Egyptian military, people he could trust since that was his background. We tolerated his socialism and nationalism and even saved his presidency by diplomatically intervening and threatening the British, French, and Israelis during the Suez Crisis. After that, we even made a few clumsy bribery attempts to wean him away from his socialistic tendencies. He was an American ally until we reneged on our commitment to financially assist with the building of the Aswan High Dam. That is when he turned to the Soviets for financial and military aid.
Meanwhile, Egyptian universities (Cairo, Ein Shams, Al Azhar, Asyuit, Alexandria, etc.) were turning out unprecedented numbers of college graduates, mostly young men with technical degrees. To retain this knowledge, Nasser would not let them emigrate or even leave the country. However, there was a shortage of jobs for educated young men in Egypt. This is where the nationalized state companies entered the picture. The state guaranteed all of them employment. I know of engineers who were assigned to the Suez Canal Authority after the canal was closed in 1967. Although these young men were not happy with “make-work,” they received salaries and could hope to marry, buy houses, and maybe even buy a car.
After Nasser died, Sadat was more Western oriented in his thinking, probably because of his wife Jehan. Sadat allowed young technical men to work in other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Libya, and Tunisia. They sent remittances back to Egypt and significantly helped the Egyptian economy. This policy also allowed Sadat to scale back some of the state enterprises, improve efficiencies, and attract some foreign investment. It also increased Egypt’s influence in the countries where these young men worked.
After Sadat was assassinated, Mubarek took over. Mubarek openly encouraged the young Egyptians to work in other Arab countries. At the urging of the U.S. government, he also began privatizing many of the state enterprises. The army wasn’t happy with Mubarek since the army ran many of these enterprises, but Mubarek had enough power to overcome objections. Economically, Egypt prospered as remittances increased and foreign investment mushroomed. Other Arab countries were now also educating their own technicians and fewer young Egyptians were working in other countries, but the Egyptian economy could not absorb them since the private sector now provided fewer opportunities than the public sector previously had.
Then the global recession hit, followed later by the revolution in Libya. Suddenly there were very few jobs in other countries for young Egyptians, and the Egyptian private sector did not have jobs for them. The military
tried to absorb some of them in the few industries they still controlled that had not been privatized, but it was not sufficient. Egypt, and particularly Cairo, had a large surplus of young college educated men who could not find employment. They revolted against Mubarek.
I strongly believe that it was privatization more than anything else that brought down Mubarek. The army ousted him, but also realized that they could not cure Egypt’s economic woes and unemployment problems. They needed
a scapegoat who the people would blame. What better scapegoat than the hated Moslem Brotherhood? Although their supporters comprised only about 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, Mohammed Morsi was elected president in what appears to have been an honest election. Then, the army simply sat back and waited until he inevitably failed to turn around the economy.
So, what do I think can save Egypt? Personally, I think the only hope is the army and a return to some form of socialistic state enterprises under which all young college graduates are once again guaranteed employment. If
you think about it, that is what made Egypt great thousands of years ago. Build some new pyramids that employ all of the currently unemployed. What can the U.S. government do to help? We can offer support to the Egyptian army and encourage U.S. firms to invest in Egypt. We can also acknowledge that our own form of Western democracy is not perfect and should not be a blueprint for all other countries to follow.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
I think you are in over your head, so I think I can join in. Throwing in the towel is ridiculous. Obama may not have “the” answer, but to give up is ludicrous. Obama invented trying until you get it right. Problem in Egypt is the same as here: lack of full participation. Obviously the Brotherhood is better organized–they one. Same in the US; when less than 50% of the electorate participate, you wind up with Bachman types, and GW Bush.
You say: “No society – not even the U.S. – operates anything near real democracy.” Sounds like something from the rightwingnuts who denigrate Western European democracies who do a much better job at getting out the vote to a well educated and participatory electorate.
Half the Egyptian population (females) has only a 64% literacy. Along with Sharia law, this means a very significant part of the population does not participate fully in democracy.