12 August 2013

McCain in Egypt: in search of 'democratic governance'

Senator McCain and his sidekick Sen. Graham were in Egypt last week to assess the political situation and talk to some of the major players. While declaring themselves "longtime friends of Egypt and its armed forces," they supported the 2011 popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. While stating that former Mohamed Morsi "will not be reinstated as president," they refuse to sugarcoat the circumstances of his fall from power. "We find it difficult to describe [it] as anything other than a coup," they write for the Washington Post. They have advice for both sides of the Egyptian political divide. While they insist that "unsuccessful leaders in a democracy should leave office by losing elections," they want the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist sympathizers to concede that Morsi blew it. Their implicit advice to the Islamists is to give up on Morsi if they want to be part of the future political process. Their advice to General al-Sisi and the interim regime is to make sure that the Islamists remain part of the political process. "No matter how much [you] dislike Morsi's supporters, they are Egyptians, too, and it is neither realistic nor right to try to exclude them from the life of the nation. This means dealing with them magnanimously, not vindictively." As a Republican, McCain has experience dealing with religious conservatives and an understandable belief in the necessity of reaching a modus vivendi with them, though the American religious conservatives may not regard him as a model of magnanimity.

The Senators' comments are pretty conventional and could just as well have been written by Democrats. The one really interesting detail in their op-ed was the distinction they drew between "democracy" and "democratic governance."

Democracy is the only viable path to lasting stability, national reconciliation, sustainable economic growth and the return of investment and tourism in Egypt. And democracy means more than elections. It means democratic governance: an inclusive political process in which all Egyptians are free and able to participate, so long as they do so nonviolently; the protection of basic human rights through the rule of law and the constitution; and a state that defends and fosters a vibrant civil society.

Inclusiveness seems like a sine qua non of democracy, but just to be a pest, let me ask what's "democratic" about the rest of the proposed toolkit of "democratic governance." I'm not objecting to the protection of human rights, the rule of law, or civil society. But these items are seen, albeit positively, as checks on democratic excess, whether the tyranny of a majority or the pretensions of democratically-elected authoritarians. So what makes them "democratic?" The answer, I think, is a belief that the rule of the people is never entirely synonymous with the rule of a majority that forms in any one place at any one time. If mobs of millions of Egyptians compelled (or inspired) the military to remove Morsi from power, was that democracy? Not by the McCain-Graham standard if leaders in a democracy should only lose power through elections. The liberal idea of democracy (and that covers "conservatives" like McCain and the Republicans) is that no group of people, no matter how large, is the people.  The real democratic ideal in their minds is government not by but in the interest of all the people; democracy is not when everyone rules, but when everyone benefits.. This ideal conflicts with the aspirations of any group large enough to believe themselves, if not the people, then a majority entitled to rule and determined (with whatever sense of necessity) to act. "Democracy" and "democratic governance" are at least potentially conflicting impulses, the one empowering people while the other aims to protect people from power. On some level it looks like people hedging their bets, but before we jump to judgments everyone interested in Egypt might clarify things by talking straight about power rather than democracy. Those of us in more established "democracies" can set an example by talking straight about the balance of power in our own countries, whether that can be described as democracy or not.

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