02 February 2011

Democracy in Egypt

While Hosni Mubarak is widely regarded as an authoritarian strongman who routinely rigs elections in Egypt, that doesn't mean he doesn't have sincere supporters among the Egyptian people. But when a "pro-Mubarak" crowd, including some literal "camel jockeys" appeared to contest control of the streets with the anti-Mubarak demonstrators, representatives of the latter instantly assumed, or at least told the global media, that their antagonists were no more than hirelings of the government in one way or another, whether plainclothes police or the sort of rabble typically recruited for such exercises. There may prove to be truth to their claims, but at first hearing these charges sound like propaganda in bad faith, and perhaps no more to be taken seriously than the claim, maybe heard more in America than in Egypt itself, that the anti-government protesters are but dupes of the diabolical Muslim Brotherhood if not implacable fanatics themselves. Many of the combatants in the pro-Mubarak camp probably believe that, whether the belief is justified or not. I can easily imagine that many Egyptians hate the Brotherhood and all Islamists more than they do Mubarak with all his acknowledged or alleged flaws. If any Egyptian still embraces the Nasserite dream of secular "Arab socialism" and ethnic rather than religious unity, he or she must surely despise the "Muslim Right" that has railed against that vision, often violently, ever since the Revolution of 1952. Islamists have already killed an Egyptian president, after all, which is why we have Mubarak in the first place. On a more mundane level, many Egyptians must have a stake in stability that seems threatened by the last week's uprisings. They may also have enough idea of the rule of law to find any revolutionary removal of Mubarak dangerously irregular. So there should be plenty of reason for Egyptians to take to the streets for Mubarak's sake beside bribery or orders from an employer. To assume that demonstrations for Mubarak are illegitimate or insincere, to assume generally that anyone who disagrees with you is the Enemy, is somewhat hypocritically undemocratic of the ostensibly pro-democracy protesters. They may be vindicated when the facts come out, but their impulse to accuse is still deplorable.

Meanwhile, Mubarak has promised not to seek re-election and to leave office when his current term expires within the year. The street opposition considers this an insufficient concession; they want the old man to quit now, before he has a chance to renege on his promise or manipulate the fall election to get his son or some other stooge elected in his place. They don't trust Mubarak's party to conduct a fair election. On one hand, they probably have good reason for that distrust; on the other, their current stand may raise questions about their commitment to democratic elections. In any event, they seem to have come to a conclusion that Americans would hardly dare draw about their own country: that a political party has usurped power to such an extent that no opposition can take power so long as that party exists. Like many authoritarians, Mubarak has never figured out a way to share power in rotation with a faction that agrees with him on essential issues, but takes enough contrary stands on symbolic issues to make elections look meaningful to the masses. An 82 year old president is clearly just another self-styled indispensable man, or else one with no reason to live except to wield power. Another thing authoritarian regimes have a hard time learning is that systems matter more than men. That may be because political power is the only way for many people to enrich themselves in such countries; if one family or tribe's well-being depends on rulership, they probably won't be as willing to take turns as are other factions in other countries. Whether any of Mubarak's enemies will prove more willing to take turns, or whether leaders in their midst already consider themselves indispensable, remains to be seen.

Back in America, the Republican media are already sounding the predictable alarmist notes. As far as some opinionators are concerned, the Egyptian uprising may as well have been conceived and coordinated exclusively by the Muslim Brotherhood if by improbably shared remote-control by al-Qaeda and Iran. Their only concern is how events may threaten U.S. or Israeli interests in the Middle East. Many of the same people who rooted on the anti-government demonstrators in Iran in 2009 are probably rooting for Mubarak's forces to rout this year's demonstrators. While I've said already that Republicans have no business crediting any of the 2011 uprisings to the allegedly liberating influence of the conquest of Iraq, I'm still surprised to hear so few of them try to give credit to George W. Bush. That's probably because the uprisings are taking place elsewhere than where the neocons hoped they'd take place. They want uprisings in Syria, in Iran, in Lebanon or anyplace where the government is deemed anti-American. Such places need democracy, so long as democracy is presumed to make people more friendly toward the United States and Israel. Where governments are already friendly, greater democracy only complicates things. Democracy always does when it empowers the excluded and insists on mutual accountability. The notion that democratic institutions would put people of all nations in agreement on controversial questions is a delusion. Anyone actually committed to democracy will not judge the democracy of one country by the extent to which it agrees with public opinion or government policy in another democracy. Fidelity to democracy and deference to the United States are not one and the same.

Are revolutions democratic? We should probably only judge by results. Merely driving Mubarak from power by burning buildings, looting museums and making a lot of noise isn't automatically democratic. Who's to say that a silent majority doesn't prefer Mubarak, at least to whatever the crowds have in mind? Who can say only on the evidence of riots that the demonstrators represent the Egyptian majority? I can understand why someone might hesitate before cheering Mubarak's overthrow as a triumph for democracy. But it could also be argued that revolution is the only truly democratic act, since it means the dismissal of previously delegated authority and its presumed reversion to the people. It could also be argued that, if democracy moves by the will of the people, then complacency has no vote and silence is neither consent nor a veto. It might be deemed absurd to argue, after all, that democracy is only firmly established once the people agree to delegate their authority to elected representatives. All of this is just another way of saying that democracy itself is complicated. We all talk about democracy and most of us talk as if it's a good thing. The spectacle in Egypt looks like a good occasion for all of us not necessarily to question our assumptions, but at least to clarify what we think we're talking about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We (America) claim to support democracy and yet whenever it looks like the people's choice is for a muslim government, the right gets all up in arms. I think you've hit another nail on the head here. Why should America's or Israel's interest have any place in the minds of those who are not citizens of these countries, when deciding who runs their government?

If we truly support democracy, then we should be willing to support any democratically elected government, whether they agree with us or not, even if they are anti-Israel. After all, through much of their (purported) history, the Jews were not a democracy, but a theocracy - with many of the same "laws" and traditions they share with other semitic peoples of the middle east.

I believe it was Voltaire who state "I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." I think we can do no better than to follow his advice. We may not agree with a government elected by a foreign people to lead their country, but as democrats, we should be willing to "fight to the death" for their right to elect such a government.