July 13, 2013
The West Doesn’t Get To Evaluate Egyptian Democracy
Western media pundits love telling other countries how to run their affairs. Ever since the removal of Morsi by the Egyptian military in the midst of mass protests, we’ve been inundated with headlines such as “Egypt’s Failed Democratic Experiment” and even the well-intentioned “Don’t Blame Islam for the Failure of Egypt’s Democracy”. Western columnists, of course, have come to the rescue of Egyptian democracy by offering paternalistic advice, such as adopting a Pinochet style free-market military dictatorship. Pundits point to the military intervention, deaths of protesters, and suspension of the constitution as evidence that democracy has failed or is failing. It appears that American “thinkers” have forgotten our own chaotic and bloody process that established our still fragile constitutional republic.
How absurd would it be to declare the discarding of The Articles of Confederation the “failure of American democracy”? Between The American Revolution and Civil War, we went through a series of crises that could have led to a failed state. Mutiny and rebellion were not uncommon, with Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions both occurring less than 10 years after the Treaty of Paris. The slavery question led to revolts, massacres and even open warfare that predated the start of The Civil War. Not to mention wars of aggression against Mexico and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. If we were to look at our own history with the same kind of knee-jerk scrutiny, we would have to conclude that American democracy died within the first few years. The very concept of democracy “failing” or “succeeding” makes absolutely no sense. It is a never-ending process.
To continue with our own example, I would argue that to even call The United States an experiment in democracy is ahistorical. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes:
…James Madison argued that representative government was needed to maintain peace in a society ridden by factional disputes. These disputes came from ‘the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.’ The problem, he said, was how to control the factional struggles that came from inequalities in wealth. Minority factions could be controlled, he said, by the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority.”
In other words, the American experiment was never designed to be a democratic system, but rather a system that maintained order and privilege via the consent and/or passiveness of diverse, and often angry, disenfranchised and/or exploited segments of society. No serious student of political theory or history considers The United States (or any other centrally powerful nation-state) a full democracy. We are a constitutional republic, with all the good and the bad that comes with such a system. There are growing pains with any transitional period, and in that respect, Egypt is no different. There are likely to be winners and losers in whatever system emerges from the present struggle.
I am not naïve enough to believe that I know where Egypt is going. But wherever it goes, violence and turmoil will pave that road. If 20 years from now, Egypt is a stable constitutional republic with a solid economy, and peaceful borders, I guarantee you that people will have been arrested, beaten and killed on the path towards that future. Such is the nature of states. This is not to minimize the suffering involved, but we have to start being serious about the way we talk about “democracy” in the context of nation states. This is not a defense of state power or electioneering, though you may choose to consider it an argument for anarchism. But I digress.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer, but I am hopeful for the people of Egypt, as I am for the people of all nations experiencing populist revolts and social unrest. This is not to say that things can’t go south, especially if outside actors attempt to impose a system or a vision. As I write, reports from Al-Jazeera indicate that The United States played a significant role in the removal of Morsi. The escalation in violence and role of the military does bring historical memories of U.S. supported military coups and the specter of the Syrian conflict looms over any nation undergoing a rocky transition. But Egypt is not Syria. Egypt is not Tunisia. I am also fairly certain that Egypt is not Luxembourg or Prussia.
Egypt is Egypt. The future of Egypt must remain in Egyptian hands, whether our intellectual masters at The Wall Street Journal like it or not.
KENNY STEVEN FUENTES