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Egypt’s twisted democratisation

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why the U.S. should reflect on its historical experience and let the secularists and Islamists forge their own path

Events in Egypt over the last week have been both disappointing and illuminating. Disappointing because a democratically elected government was overthrown by the military supported by a vast number of Egyptian citizens. Illuminating because it confirmed what we already knew i.e. that democratisation is a long and protracted process that goes through many twists and turns. In the best case scenario, Egypt is going through the birth pangs of democracy – this is only a passing cloud before the country stabilises. In the worst case scenario, this is the first step on a journey more perilous than the Sahara. Egypt could be on a highway to civil war.

Right now, many analysts in the Western media are offering one “solution” for Egypt: a rapid return to “democracy.” This “solution” would be characterised by a new constitution and the holding of fresh elections for president and parliament. This is what was done immediately Hosni Mubarak was toppled by the alliance between demonstrators on


the street and the army that refused to crack down on them. Why has the first attempted transition to democracy in that country ended in a popular military coup?

There is a peculiar way in which the concept of democracy has evolved over the last two decades that has turned it from a system of government into a religion. For Christians, there is only one road to salvation – believing that Jesus Christ is your savior. So every human being – regardless of gender, income, ethnicity or race needs to believe in this single creed and the rest would be added unto them. Same now applies to governance – seek ye first democracy and the rest will be added unto you.

Hence every country – whether it is Liberia or Sierra Leone emerging out of civil war; Afghanistan and Somalia that are almost stateless; Egypt or Syria with strong militaries in a volatile region; Mali and Central Africa Republic that cannot manage themselves or Ghana and Zambia that seem stable, the solution is one – Democracy. Like the free market fundamentalists of the 1980s, the democracy mongers of today believe that context does not matter. Every country – regardless of its social dynamics at play has to hold elections, have a free press, a multiplicity of political parties competing for power and an army of “civil society” organisations to underpin it all.

The biggest threat to democratisation in poor countries today is this near-religious fundamentalist zeal in promoting it that rejects nuance and complexity. Elites in poor countries, urged on by their own social frustrations and political ambitions, idealism and impatience and also urged on by Western media, popular culture and textbook theories embrace this religion with fanatical zeal. The problem of course is not democracy itself; rather it is this blind promotion of it as a magic bullet for every country regardless of circumstances.

Behind elites in poor countries stands the power of western democracies led by the US. Yet in fact America’s historical experience contradicts many of the dictates that it seeks to promote in other countries. For example, a purely democratic process can sustain and even prolong many anti-democratic practices such as gross inequalities in gender, race and income. Slavery in America was sustained in spite of (and also because of) its democratic institutions. Thus, with its competitive multi-party elections, a free press, vibrant civic associations, an independent judiciary, a powerful legislature and a highly decentralised and federated system of government, slavery reigned.

When finally it had to be ended, it was via a civil war that lasted four years and left over 700,000 people dead. The emancipation proclamation of 1864 was not issued through an election but an arbitrary act of one man – President Abraham Lincoln. To get Congress to ratify it, Lincoln had to literary bribe, cajole and on many occasions intimidate and blackmail reluctant congressmen to support his proposed constitutional amendment. Even the struggle for civil rights in America that began in 1952 lasted 13 years before major civil rights legislation could be passed by Congress in 1965. Armed with this historical reflection, one would expect American leaders to be the more understanding of the challenges that Egypt is going through.

The solution to the Egyptian crisis cannot be picked from a textbook about best practice in any other part of the world. The experiences of others can be reference points from which to draw lessons, but not solutions. The contestants for power in Egypt are now in a situation where they harbor mutually reinforcing fears and temptations. The secularists fear that the Islamists want to dominate power by excluding everyone else as has happened in Iran, a factor that has tempted them to support the military take over. But the Islamists may now fear that there is an alliance between the secularists and the military to block them from power as has happened in Egypt for the last six decades. This fear may tempt them to abandon the democratic process and seek a violent path to power. If this happens, Egypt will be on the highway to a Syria scenario.

However, there is also a chance that military intervention, may be the act that saves Egyptian democracy as the civil war ended slavery in the US where democracy had failed. This is because, after their election into office, the Muslim Brotherhood saw this as an opportunity – not so much to promote democratic governance – but to monopolise power. They passed a law banning all former members of Mubarak’s political party from ever running for public office. President Mohamed Morsi passed a decree declaring that none of his proclamations can even be challenged in court. He then proceeded to staff every government institution with people drawn from the brotherhood.

Every action generates equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, a politician worth the title should never strike a blow without calculating the effect of its rebound. Morsi’s (and the brotherhood’s) attempts to monopolise the political space in Egypt generated secondary contestations from those who felt excluded from the political process – the secularists. When they took to the streets and paralyzed government, they instigated the army to take over on their behalf? But secularists may soon realise that the army wants power as much as they want it. It is how the actors in Egypt manage this contradiction that will determine whether the country democratizes or degenerates into civil war.

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