Egypt’s new constitution was approved last week by a 98% vote. When a vote is 98%, you know it ain’t democracy. In this case, no opposition campaign was even permitted; people were arrested just for hanging signs.
The result was nevertheless called plausible because most Egyptians are fed up with the turmoil introduced by the 2011 revolution. Yet only 38.6% turned out to vote. Meantime, that civic exhaustion is making the army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a popular hero for cracking down, and a shoo-in for the coming presidential election.
I endorsed the July coup, ousting President Morsi, because his undemocratic behavior seemed to legitimate it. But I expressed concern lest his successors emulate Morsi – that instead of working to ameliorate divisions in Egyptian society, they’d exacerbate conflict by trying to annihilate the Islamists. And so they have.
We’ve seen this movie before – The Empire Strikes Back – the return of the so-called “deep state” – the military, the police, all the elements accustomed to control by force, together with all their powerful and corrupt economic cronies. The 2011 revolution seemed to shake this “deep state.” But it recovered its mojo and it’s back.
Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi called last week’s constitutional referendum a vote “for a better economy, for social justice, for new legal protections expanding human dignity and liberty,” and “the dawning of a new Egypt.”
Orwellian verbiage if I ever heard it. The reality is precisely the opposite. Not the dawning of a new Egypt, but a fall back to the old one. Amid all this palaver about human dignity and liberty, it’s not just Muslim Brothers who’ve been rounded up and jailed, but also legions of the democracy and human rights advocates who were the vanguard of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the press is less free than ever too. When Senators Graham and McCain met with el-Sissi after the coup, they reported him intoxicated by power. Electing him president will reprise Mubarak and his stifling regime.
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But Egypt is not the only case of democracy in trouble.
Bangladesh is a sorry mess, its politics for decades poisoned by a vendetta between two venal widows of former leaders (the “battling begums,” they’re called); the army tried stepping in, but only made things worse; now the civilian government of one of the begums has been dubiously re-elected after a vote boycott by the opposition, and seems bent on entrenching itself in (mis)government forever.
In Ukraine the citizenry struggles desperately against President Yanukovych intent on replicating Putin’s Russia.
I’ve written about Sri Lanka, whose President Rajapaksa finally defeated a long-running insurgency, but instead of building on this for national reconciliation, is gutting the nation’s democracy to cement control by his band of brothers.
And I’ve written about Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra (no would-be tyrant, it seems) won a fair and decisive election victory; but the opposition “Democrats” (actually anti-democrats) refuse to accept it, and have been destabilizing the country, seeking in effect a minority dictatorship. To resolve this, Yingluck has called an early election – which the “Democrats” are boycotting (because they’d lose again).
It’s been my gospel that, in the big picture, the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution; that while nothing in human affairs is ever linear, notwithstanding zigs and zags democracy is rising because it addresses fundamental human yearnings (see my initial comments on Egypt’s 2011 revolution). But admittedly we’re seeing lately more zigs than zags. Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine – and there are others – together with the ostensible flourishing of authoritarianism in Russia and China – and its stubborn persistence in still other places like Cuba – all might seem to make my gospel as wishful as belief in Heaven.
Perhaps in truth the great wave of democratic progress, in the latter part of the 20th century, represented a harvest of “low hanging fruit;” in societies where (using a related metaphor) the soil was fertile for democratic seeds to take root; whereas the places singled out above are the tougher cases, with stonier soil.
A couple of threads run through all of them. The will to power is of course very strong; even stronger is the will to retain power once gained. Fettering that human ambition is a key challenge for any democratic system (as the writers of The Federalist recognized). And it’s very hard to do where civil society is weak. That’s true in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where democratic consciousness is not sufficiently developed to be able to thwart illegitimate power. Ukraine hangs in the balance on this. A similar story is Venezuela, which couldn’t keep Chavez from shredding its democracy. Of course, he was originally elected, which points up another problem: where democracy is not mature, voters are too often suckered by the likes of Chavez, Yanukovych, the begums, and el-Sissi.
Another factor is an ethos of pluralism. This means accepting that elements of society other than your own have a legitimate role to play, a right to participate in governance, and even to wield power if acquired through fair process. For all America’s partisan divisions, it would be unthinkable for election losers to go into the streets to overturn the result. We take that for granted; but such is exactly what Thailand’s election losers are doing. They don’t share our ethos of pluralism. The same is true of other nations I’ve discussed. This is particularly a problem in Arab countries like Egypt: a refusal to accept that segments of society other than one’s own have a legitimate role that must be respected and accommodated.
If that sounds childish, in fact it is. But people outgrow their childish traits, and most of us become mature adults. The world is still divided between childish and mature societies. But the former will, in time, grow up too.