When Democracy Doesn’t Work

Egypt’s trumped-up vote settles it: Democracy in the Arab world is dead or dying. That actually may be a good thing, for now.

A supporter of the Egyptian Army and Army chief General Abel Fattah al-Sissi cheers him on at the trial of deposed former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

For a very long time, Amer­ic­an lead­ers have be­lieved that demo­cracy could solve many of the world’s prob­lems. And no, I’m not just re­fer­ring to George W. Bush; I’m talk­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son. “This ball of liberty, I be­lieve most pi­ously, is now so well in mo­tion that it will roll around the globe,” Jef­fer­son wrote ec­stat­ic­ally after Amer­ic­an in­de­pend­ence.  Al­most every pres­id­ent since then, in­clud­ing Bush and Barack Obama, has cham­pioned to dif­fer­ing de­grees the idea that glob­al demo­cracy is an in­ev­it­able and be­ne­fi­cent his­tor­ic­al force.

But the ball of liberty is look­ing pretty de­flated these days, es­pe­cially in the Mideast. Des­pite much ed­it­or­i­al­iz­ing that holds a neo-isol­a­tion­ist Obama re­spons­ible for this, the trend has little to do with U.S. policy. It has far more to do with the emer­ging real­ity that not only isn’t demo­cracy a pan­acea, it some­times — apostasy alert! — doesn’t work well at all. In­deed, in some un­ready parts of the globe like the Ar­ab world, demo­cracy may not be the best way for­ward, at least right now.

That is es­pe­cially true in coun­tries where tri­bal and sec­tari­an polit­ics still rule the na­tion­al sens­ib­il­ity, and the groups that win elec­tions are mainly in­ter­ested in stifling, dis­en­fran­chising, or even killing their out-bal­loted rivals, as in Egypt, Ir­aq, and very likely Syr­ia. Plainly, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ad­ap­ted its policy ac­cord­ingly. We are thus at a high tide of real­politik.

Con­sider, for starters, Egypt, where the main source of dia­logue for months has been con­duc­ted in a fairly smooth way between junta lead­er Gen. Ab­del Fa­tah al-Sisi and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel. True enough: Un­der the junta that ous­ted Pres­id­ent Mo­hamed Mor­si last Ju­ly, the two-day con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum that began Tues­day has been rigged and vir­tu­ally en­sures mil­it­ary rule, open­ing the way for Sisi to re­fash­ion him­self as a Hosni Mubarak-like auto­crat. “It ought to be ob­vi­ous that the ‘road map’ to demo­cracy that Gen. Sisi is pro­mot­ing is no more than a fig leaf cov­er­ing the res­tor­a­tion of the pre-2011 re­gime, in a more ma­lig­nant form,” The Wash­ing­ton Post ed­it­or­i­al­ized in op­pos­ing the re­sump­tion of more than $1 bil­lion in U.S. aid.

But what if the con­sti­tu­tion forced through in 2012 by the elec­ted Mor­si, the de­posed Is­lam­ist pres­id­ent, was even more re­press­ive than what Egyp­tians voted on this week? Ar­gu­ably, it was. That con­sti­tu­tion en­shrined Is­lam­ism and sharia as the law of the land, which Mor­si en­forced with a de­cree for­bid­ding the courts from chal­len­ging it, and un­der it he as­sumed near-dic­tat­ori­al powers that Sisi will al­most cer­tainly not have if he be­comes pres­id­ent. While the new con­sti­tu­tion does, some­what alarm­ingly, es­tab­lish the dom­in­ance of the mil­it­ary, it also ex­pands per­son­al freedoms and rights for Egypt’s broad­er pop­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing wo­men and the Chris­ti­an minor­ity.

It also ap­pears that many Egyp­tians agree with this less­er-of-evils as­sess­ment, based on the early vote in which the Sisi ref­er­en­dum ap­peared to be widely sup­por­ted. Most Egyp­tians des­per­ately want eco­nom­ic growth after three years of chaos, and they’ll vote for who­ever prom­ises to de­liv­er sta­bil­ity. Right now that is Sisi, no mat­ter how hor­rific­ally bloody his crack­down on the Muslim Broth­er­hood has been. Bey­ond that, Wash­ing­ton badly needs Egypt, the most pop­u­lous Ar­ab coun­try, on its side in the Middle East right now as it at­tempts a dra­mat­ic re­align­ment in­clud­ing Is­raeli-Palestini­an talks and ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an and Syr­ia. So there is really little choice for U.S. poli­cy­makers but to side with mor­ally com­prom­ised pseudo-demo­cracy.

In Syr­ia, giv­en re­cent trends, the ouster of Bashar al-As­sad fol­lowed by any­thing re­sem­bling demo­crat­ic elec­tions would al­most cer­tainly bring 1) a blood­bath and 2) some form of Is­lam­ist rule that is even more rad­ic­al and anti-West­ern than what Mor­si and the Muslim Broth­er­hood planned in Egypt. Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s cur­rent ef­fort to bring As­sad and mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion ele­ments to­geth­er in Switzer­land doesn’t ob­scure the fact that the de­cis­ive fight­ing go­ing on in the coun­try is a three-way battle between the re­gime, rad­ic­al Syr­i­an Is­lam­ists, and rival rad­ic­al for­eign­ers rep­res­en­ted by the al-Qaida-linked group called Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia. If there were post-As­sad elec­tions in Syr­ia any time soon — real elec­tions — a pop­u­la­tion un­der the gun of some of these dom­in­ant Is­lam­ist groups would likely vote in a rad­ic­al gov­ern­ment. Against that pro­spect, even a bloody tyr­ant like As­sad might be prefer­able for the time be­ing.     

In Ir­aq, des­pite a mul­ti­tril­lion-dol­lar U.S. ef­fort over the bet­ter part of a dec­ade, Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki has, again and again, al­lowed his sec­tari­an Shiite polit­ic­al base (and pos­sibly Ir­an) to dic­tate policy to­ward the Sun­nis and Kur­ds. Now, in re­sponse, Sunni tri­bal lead­ers are tem­por­iz­ing over wheth­er to take on — or join — the re­sur­rec­ted al-Qaida-linked Is­lam­ist groups that have moved in­to Fal­lu­jah and Ra­madi. Ma­jor­ity rule can really suck if your prime min­is­ter can’t see bey­ond his polit­ic­al base, as in the case of Ma­liki and his Dawa Party, and is meth­od­ic­ally dis­en­fran­chising his op­pon­ents. This is not a demo­cracy that is work­ing on any level.

The lam­ent­able lim­its of demo­cracy may soon ex­tend to Libya, if it can ever re­in­teg­rate it­self in­to a na­tion­al whole. Since Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi, Libya has be­come one gi­ant no-man’s-land loosely gov­erned by mi­li­tias, most of which would be only too happy to hi­jack any elec­tion. In Ye­men, se­ces­sion­ist tend­en­cies between north and south have ree­m­erged in the post-Saleh era. Only in Tunisia, where the rul­ing Is­lam­ist En­nahda party was scared straight by the ouster of Mor­si in nearby Egypt, is there some hope for the kind of con­sensus polit­ics that is crit­ic­al to suc­cess­ful demo­cracy. (Are you listen­ing, U.S. Con­gress?)

It’s a hard les­son to learn. But some­times, it seems, coun­tries are simply not ma­ture enough, so­cially or eco­nom­ic­ally, for demo­cracy. Or the mo­ment in his­tory is wrong. Post-czar­ist Rus­sia ap­peared that way when the auto­crat­ic Bolshev­iks took out the weak, par­lia­ment­ary-minded Men­shev­iks in 1917. And Wei­mar Ger­many did too, when the Nazi Party and newly elec­ted Chan­cel­lor Hitler ex­ploited the coun­try’s De­pres­sion-en­gendered eco­nom­ic chaos to ab­use their elect­or­al ad­vant­age as well, a situ­ation that has un­set­tling echoes today in Egypt. Vladi­mir Putin’s Rus­sia may be prov­ing the same thing today, along with Ukraine, where the op­pos­i­tion to Putin’s like-minded ally, Vic­tor Ya­nukovich, has de­gen­er­ated in­to ul­tra-right­ist torch­light parades. Choos­ing between Pu­tin­ists and neo-Nazis is a little like choos­ing between mil­it­ary rulers and Is­lam­ist zealots — it is, in oth­er words, no choice at all.

Maybe we should just take our ball of liberty and go home. For now.

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