29 May 2011

The Egyptian Experiment: How soon should the people vote?

Writing in The New York Times this weekend, Thomas Friedman echoes the anxieties of Egyptian liberals when he warns that the nation's first truly free elections could come too soon.


The Tahrir Square revolution was a largely spontaneous, bottom-up affair. It was not led by any particular party or leader. Parties are just now being formed. If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

What do the liberals want? "They are only now forming parties," Friedman writes, "and trying to build networks that can reach the millions of traditional Egyptians living in the countryside and persuade them to vote for a reform agenda and not just: “Islam is the answer.” Some of these liberals seem afraid that too much party building could be bad. A liberal billionaire is "urging all the liberal groups to run under a single banner and not divide their vote." Before a party system even comes into being, then, there are "lesser-evil" arguments against pluralism on the premise that a Brotherhood triumph is an intolerable worst-case scenario, since it could guarantee an illiberal constitution. Another liberal pleads against an early election, arguing that the Brothers could only win 20% of the vote in a truly free election, but that that outcome depends on people knowing that alternatives exist.

These Egyptian anxieties are rooted in fundamental problems of electoral politics. How are voters to know what their choices are? How do candidates make themselves known to the masses? Political parties have developed throughout the world to facilitate this process, but it rankles for Friedman or his Egyptian interlocutors to suggest that party formation is an essential step in democratization that should take place before elections. We had elections in the U.S. before we had parties, but we also had a preemptive favorite for the presidency, George Washington, who was not suspected of harboring dictatorial ambitions. The issue for many Egyptians is the allegedly illiberal agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. But there are obviously two sides, at least, to this story. Is it fair to the Brotherhood to delay the elections until liberals feel confident that the Brothers will lose? The desirability of a liberal victory is a separate consideration from the desirability of scheduling elections in a way that gives candidates time to present themselves to the entire electorate. At a certain point you have to decide that all the parties have had their chance and that if one wins and the others lose, they can't make the excuse that they didn't have enough time to overcome the winner's historic organizational advantage. But there should be a period of time during which candidates can be nominated, whether by party primaries or conventions or by mass meetings. If the Egyptians opt for a standardized ballot, candidates should have time to meet whatever criteria the government (in this case, the army) imposes for earning a spot on the ballot. Again, this can't and shouldn't be an indefinite process, and the object of it shouldn't be to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning or even to minimize its chances for victory. Electoral politics in a representative democracy requires a degree of good faith in all the participants, and the electoral process shouldn't be skewed against any party or candidate. If the Egyptian liberals can't countenance the Brotherhood winning, they may as well ask the army to ban the Brothers and then pretend to have a democratic election.

One wonders: were there a second powerful faction already in place, liberal or not, would there be such a clamor to delay the Egyptian elections? After all, in the United States it can be observed that many parties lag far behind the Republican and Democratic parties just as the Egyptian starter parties lag behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Given how many opinion polls report dissatisfaction with the two main American parties, don't the several third parties in this country have as much moral right to ask that the 2012 presidential and congressional elections be delayed until they achieve some sort of organizational or public-profile parity with the Democrats and GOP? What American wouldn't scoff at the notion? Wouldn't it only prove that those other parties are just losers? Americans could argue that their own third parties have all already had their chances to prove themselves and failed, while the Egyptian liberals need a chance to prove themselves. But if any sort of existing handicap justifies manipulating election schedules, if not election rules, to maximize opportunities for weaker parties, wouldn't any party anywhere laboring under a handicap based on massive disparities of organization, resources, name recognition, etc., be justified in demanding new rules to give them all the time (if not more of the resources) they need to make elections truly competitive? If you can't justify that, then you have to tell the Egyptian liberals that it'll be just too bad if they can't find a candidate or platform popular enough to beat the Brothers within a definite period of time. If, however, you do think that disparities in size and organization distort the election process anywhere, my advice for Americans is: physician, heal thyself.

6 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

There is no excuse for these people to have not organized during the dictatorship on the premise the dictator would not live forever and when he died, there would be elections. If the only group to have bothered to organize during all this was the Muslim Brotherhood, then at least it shows some foresight on their part.

Insofar as Friedman goes, one would assume from the name that he is of Jewish origin and therefor his opinions are, in all likelihood, biased against any Islamic party gaining power.

As an American, I don't see that it is any of our business who is in charge. We wanted democracy in the middle east, we certainly would be hypocritical to insist that only political groups friendly to us should be allowed political power. If other groups are disfavorably disposed towards us, perhaps we should be ready for shouldering the blame for having earned their mistrust and dislike.

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhymethinc, you wrote: "Insofar as Friedman goes, one would assume from the name that he is of Jewish origin and therefor his opinions are, in all likelihood, biased against any Islamic party gaining power."

Are you sure you don't want to take that back? If you want to make generalizations, you could just as well say that as an American Friedman is probably biased against Islamism. For whatever reason, it's more OK to make this implicitly "anti-American" argument than it is to make the almost explicitly "anti-Semitic" argument you offered.

The rest of your comment is more reasonable. Americans' support for democracy abroad has always been premised on the idea that democratic nations are automatically friendly toward one another, so that, the more democratic the world is, the better time Americans will have in it. Of course, that depends on whether the rest of the world agrees with the American notion of democracy, and on whether Americans can acknowledge that theirs isn't the only notion possible or permissible.

Crhymethinc said...

No. I stand by my comment, considering the amount of anti-Islamic statements coming out of Israel. There is obviously no love lost between Israel and the rest of the middle east, but as the aggressor and occupier of land they are not entitled to, Israel is in the wrong, as is anyone who defends Israel.

Considering that Arabs, as well as Israelies are, technically speaking, "Semitic" then my statements should be considered more "anti-Israel" than "anti-Semitic".

Crhymethinc said...

" If you want to make generalizations, you could just as well say that as an American Friedman is probably biased against Islamism."

Well, to clarify things, here is (in part) what the listing in Wikipedia says about Mr. Friedman:

He became enamored of Israel after a visit there in December 1968, and he spent all three of his high school summers living on Kibbutz Hahotrim, near Haifa.[3] He has characterized his high school years as "one big celebration of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War."[1]

So, yes, we are talking about a man who has deep hostilities towards Arabs because of his perceived racial/religious heritage. Again, if we assume the old testament to be a somewhat accurate depiction of Israel's early history, there has been animosity between the Israelites and most of the other "Canaanites" since their beginnings.

That hasn't changed in thousands of years and is unlikely to any time soon.

(1) "From Beirut to Jerusalem" 1990 pg. 5

Samuel Wilson said...

"Israel has the same problem. The combination of Yasir Arafat's foolhardy decision to start a second intifada...followed by the rise of bin Laden, gave the Israeli right a free hand to expand West Bank settlements. Absent some amazing Palestinian peace overture, and maybe even with one, I do not see any Israeli leader with enough authority today to pull Israel out of the West Bank. So, for now, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and bin Laden both win: In the short run, Bibi gets to keep the West Bank, with 300,000 Jews occupying 2.4 million Palestinians. And in the long run, bin Laden helps to destroy Israel as a Jewish democracy."

That's Thomas L. Friedman this week. Hardly the uncritical Zionist you imply him to be, or assumed him to be based on his last name. I'm not saying that you have to agree with him, and I'm definitely not saying you can't be anti-Israeli. My whole problem is that you jumped to a conclusion about this guy based entirely on his name before you did your little bit of research yesterday. The moral is: look before you leap.

Crhymethinc said...

Even so, his presumption is that the onus is on the Palestinians to submit a peace offering, not Israel, as the Palestinian people are to blame for Israel's long standing violence against the indigenous peoples of the region.

The bottom line is, if the Arabs are to be forced to accept the existence of a sovereign state of Israel, then Israel is also to be forced to accept the existence of a sovereign state of Palestine, part of which MUST be the removal of Jewish trespassers on the West Bank. Barring that, that will be no peace. Barring that, I have no sympathy for Israel or any Israeli trespasser who is murdered. Not that my sympathy makes a damned bit of difference in the scheme of things.