WASHINGTON, DC – Hosni Mubarak’s resignation as President of Egypt marks the beginning of an important stage in that country’s transition to a new political system. But will the political transition ultimately lead to democracy?
We cannot know with certainty, but, based on the history of democratic government, and the experiences of other countries – the subject of my book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government – we can identify the obstacles that Egypt faces, as well as the advantages it enjoys, in building political democracy.
Understanding any country’s democratic prospects must begin with a definition of democracy, which is a hybrid form of government, a fusion of two different political traditions. The first is popular sovereignty, the rule of the people, which is exercised through elections. The second, older and equally important, is liberty – that is, freedom.
Freedom comes in three varieties: political liberty, which takes the form of individual rights to free speech and association; religious liberty, which implies freedom of worship for all faiths; and economic liberty, which is embodied in the right to own property.
Elections without liberty do not constitute genuine democracy, and here Egypt faces a serious challenge: its best-organized group, the Muslim Brotherhood, rejects religious liberty and individual rights, especially the rights of women. The Brotherhood’s offshoot, the Palestinian movement Hamas, has established in the Gaza Strip a brutal, intolerant dictatorship.
In conditions of chaos, which Egypt could face, the best-organized and most ruthless group often gets control of the government. This was Russia’s fate after its 1917 revolution, which brought Lenin’s Bolsheviks to power and condemned the country to 75 years of totalitarian rule. In the same way, the Muslim Brotherhood could seize power in Egypt and impose a far more oppressive regime than Mubarak’s ever was.
Even if Egypt avoids control by religious extremists, democracy’s two-part anatomy makes swift and smooth progress to a democratic system problematic. While elections are relatively easy to stage, liberty is far more difficult to establish and sustain, for it requires institutions – such as a legal system with impartial courts – that Egypt lacks, and that take years to build.
In other countries that have become democracies, the institutions and practices of liberty have often emerged from the working of a free-market economy. Commerce fosters the habits of trust and cooperation on which stable democracy depends. It is no accident that a free-market economy preceded democratic politics in many countries in Latin America and Asia in the second half of the twentieth century.
Here, too, Egypt is at a disadvantage. Its economy is a variant of crony capitalism, in which economic success depends on one’s political connections, rather than on the meritocratic free-market competition from which liberty grows.
Egypt suffers from another political handicap: it is an Arab country, and there are no Arab democracies. This matters, because countries, like individuals, tend to emulate others that they resemble and admire. After they overthrew communism in 1989, the peoples of Central Europe gravitated to democracy because that was the prevailing form of government in the countries of Western Europe, with which they strongly identified. Egypt has no such democratic model.
Egypt is, however, better placed to embrace democracy than the other Arab countries, because the obstacles to democracy in the Arab world are less formidable in Egypt than elsewhere. Other Arab countries – Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, for example – are sharply divided along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines.
In divided societies, the most powerful group is often unwilling to share power with the others, resulting in dictatorship. Egypt, by contrast, is relatively homogeneous. Christians, who make up 10% of the population, are the only sizable minority.
The oil that the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have in abundance also works against democracy, for it creates an incentive for the rulers to retain power indefinitely. Oil revenues enable them to bribe the population to remain politically passive, while discouraging the creation of the kind of free-market system that breeds democracy. Fortunately for its democratic prospects, Egypt has only very modest reserves of natural gas and oil.
The fact that the large protest movement that suddenly materialized has, until now, been a peaceful one also counts as an advantage for building democracy. When a government falls violently, the new regime usually rules by force, not by democratic procedures, if only to keep at bay those it has defeated.
The cause of democracy in Egypt has one other asset, the most important one of all. Democracy requires democrats – citizens convinced of the value of liberty and popular sovereignty and committed to establishing and preserving them. The political sentiments of many of the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square over the last three weeks leave little doubt that they do want democracy, and are willing to work and even to sacrifice for it. Whether they are numerous enough, resourceful enough, patient enough, wise enough, and brave enough – and whether they will be lucky enough – to achieve it is a question that only the people of Egypt can answer.
Michael Mandelbaum is Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C., and the author of Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.