Democratic Evolution in the Egyptian Revolution

After two weeks of massive anti-government demonstrations throughout Egypt, the military has removed President Mohamed Morsi from office a year after he was elected by a solid majority of the Egyptian people. The opposition has argued that Morsi has been an abject failure. The ensuing debate as to whether this was a military coup is essentially irrelevant. A duly elected president has been removed from office by the military, who quickly replaced him with the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, pending new elections.  According to General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s highest-ranking military officer, the military wants to distance itself from the political process and wants to be seen as the protector of democracy, in a stable, non-violent environment –as is true in Turkey. Like Turkey, the military in Egypt today, unlike the case as recently as the 1980s, does not want to control the government.  While the military still plays a vital role in determining who rules in much of the Middle East, in most cases it does not want to hold political power itself—at least for now.

Predictably, many voices now have surfaced arguing that Egypt’s march to democracy has been seriously damaged.  In an editorial in the New York Times, Samer Shehata argues that we are seeing a struggle between Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, who were elected by democratic means but are not liberals, and an opposition that is liberal, but not democratic.  As clever and rhetorically enticing as Shehata’s argument is, it misses the point. Shehata and his cohorts—including the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it—apply modern, Western democratic standards to situations and places that are devoid of any democratic traditions and have little understanding of democratic procedure.  In the modern era, Egypt has experienced control by imperial Britain, and then lived under a monarchy until a revolution in 1952 overthrew the regime of King Farouk and destroyed the traditional Egyptian aristocracy.  Until 2012, the country was controlled by a tight oligarchy of military and civilian autocrats.  Democracy, as we understand it in the West, was nowhere part of the Egyptian experience.

Democracy per se is not the issue.  As Winston Churchill famously noted, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.”  Democracy is a form of government to be envied and desired. The problem is that attaining democracy is an evolutionary process. It cannot be overlaid as whole cloth over a society and political community that has not experienced and embraced the underpinnings of democracy: regularly scheduled elections, political parties, popular elections, representative parliamentary rule, peaceful change of government accepted by all parties and, perhaps most important of all, civil society.

Despite the fact that Egypt has experienced none of this, the West expects Egypt and similar societies to accept and adapt modern democratic procedures and attitudes tabula rasa.  Not only is this impossible for the societies in question, it betrays smug arrogance and historical amnesia on the part of the West.  The now great democracies of the West attained their political systems through an evolutionary progression of history, not as the product of an instant implantation of a foreign system.  For example, it has taken the United States and France 200 years to achieve what they have accomplished.  Although the evolution has been much longer for Britain, it has been the teacher for the modern democratic world. Democracy is the product of a process; it is not the product of instantaneous results.

Egypt and much of the Middle East is at the threshold of this process.  It is much more important for Egypt to go through a process of trial and error than it is for Egypt to attain magically the right democratic formula.  There is no “democratic handbook” for Egypt, just as there is no such source for any society craving democracy.  There will be times, as is now that case, to step back, take a breath, recalibrate, and try again.  Eventually Egyptians will get there, at their own pace and according to their own values. And, yes, at times it may be necessary for the military to step in and restore order and stability—as long as they know when to step out again.  Hectoring, lecturing, and pressure from the West not only will not help advance the democratic process in exactly those countries we want to help, it will denigrate the accomplishments of the West.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.