Egypt: Elections Do Not Make a Democracy

July 8th, 2013

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An election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.  That’s the takeaway from the continuing upheaval in Egypt.

Last year, Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president.  Morsi won with 51.7 percent of the vote — slightly more than the 51.1 percent that Barack Obama won in 2012. Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that had been banned and persecuted in Egypt for 60 years.

Morsi’s overthrow last week put the United States on the spot. Could Washington support the removal of a democratically elected government, even one we did not like?

The Morsi government may have been elected, but there are other requirements for a democracy. A democratic government has to guarantee minority rights. It has to accept the opposition as legitimate. It has to be willing to abide by the rules. And the truest test of a democracy: The government has to give up power if it is defeated at the polls.

The Morsi government failed all those tests except the last one. That’s because it was only in power for a year and got removed by the military before it could stand for re-election. In that one year, however, Morsi asserted near-unlimited power over the country. He appointed Islamic radicals to key positions. He rammed through a new constitution that enshrined the principles of Islamic law. He arrested opponents and allowed attacks on religious minorities. He neglected the failing economy. He angered the military by calling for Egyptian intervention in Ethiopia and Syria.

Friday, the Republican chairman and ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement saying, “Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of those principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat.”

Egypt has always been a secular country. But a majority of its voters are religious and, given a chance to compete in free elections, they will elect an Islamist government. That has happened in other Arab and Muslim countries as well – for example, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran.  In 2006, Palestinians in Gaza elected a Hamas government allied with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamist governments usually infuriate the secular population and antagonize the military — which is what happened in Egypt. Tensions are also high in Turkey, where a relatively moderate Islamic government faces large-scale protests by the secular population.

The point is, elections sometimes produce unsavory results. The classic example: the German parliamentary elections of July and November 1932, which made the Nazis Germany’s largest party. As a result, Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933.

Morsi is no Hitler, but the Muslim Brotherhood is a paranoid and fanatical movement whose long-term commitment to democracy is much in doubt. To radical Islamists, elections are a way to gain power. They are enraged because the results of Egypt’s 2012 election have been nullified. “Didn’t we do what they asked?” an Islamist voter told The New York Times, “We don’t believe in democracy to begin with. It’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?”

An Islamist in Libya had this complaint: “Do you think I can sell [democracy] to the people any more?  I have been saying all along, ‘If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.’  Now they will just say, ‘Look at Egypt,’ and you don’t need to say anything else.”

To many Islamists, the United States has been exposed as hypocritical. We promote democracy, but we will not stand by a democratically elected government when it is threatened. Many believe that Washington was complicit in Morsi’s overthrow. The Obama administration reportedly tried to broker a compromise that Morsi was unwilling to accept.

At the same time, secular Egyptians complain that Washington did not criticize Morsi’s undemocratic regime. To them, it proves that Washington is interested only in stability, not democracy. Didn’t the United States support the corrupt regime of deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all those years?

More than any other recent event, the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt highlights a conflict between the form and the substance of democracy. “Why is it just ballot boxes?” a human-rights activist asked. “Are ballot boxes the only forms of democratic expression when the rulers fail the people?”

We Americans nurture the pothole theory of democracy.  We like to believe that, if a radical government is elected, it will quickly learn that it has to moderate and serve the needs of the people in order to stay in power: It has to fill the potholes and keep the lights on.

But to many Islamic radicals, the ballot is just an alternative to the bullet as a way to gain power. They are ready to abandon democracy if the military and the West won’t allow them to stay in power.

There was a frightening sight in Egypt last week. Thousands of Morsi supporters rallied under the black flag of jihad and chanted, “No more elections after today!”  But democracy means a lot more than holding elections.  That’s something they have to learn.

We just learned it in Egypt.

This piece was originally published in Reuters.