Is Egypt part of the third wave of democracy


The world is waiting and watching events in Egypt. Democracy advocates are claiming that we are witnessing the transition to democracy. In the last 25 years there has been a change in the political environment represented by increased democratization. Crumbling authoritarian regimes in Europe,  defeated military dictatorships in Latin America, as well as liberalizing tendencies in the Middle East have all been associated with what Samuel
Huntington called the third-wave of democracy.

Carothers, writing in the Journal of Democracy in 2002, explained that the conditions of the third wave were transformed into a more general paradigm for understanding democratization. This was called the transition paradigm. The transition paradigm is characterized by five key assumptions: (1) the country is moving away from dictatorial rule, (2) that the change comes in stages, (3) that genuine elections are what most confer legitimacy, (4) economics and political history are not major influences on the process of democratization, and (5) the democracy project is being built on a coherent and functioning state.

Yet, I do not believe that this transition paradigm is very descriptive of what is going on in Egypt. True enough, it looks as if Egypt is shedding authoritarian rule and one might even note that the change is coming in stages (an arguable point). But as a whole the changes in Egypt fail to match many of the assumptions of the transition paradigm. Or, at least we should wait and see. It is too early to tell if Egypt is truly transitioning to democracy. Let me elaborate.

First, there have been more than a few incidents of countries moving away from authoritarian rule when in fact they never made a transition to democracy. We have been too quick to make this assumption. There was a time when the United States described the Congo and Somalia as on a path to democratization. Egypt could yet replace one system of authority with another, or end up with increased illiberal Islamic rule.

Second, we have no reliable sense in which Egypt is experiencing stages of democratization. Other countries such as South Korea and Mexico did not go through a particular process. Egypt’s political turmoil has erupted unexpectedly, except for the argument that change in Tunisia had a contagious effect, and did not seem to follow a sequence such as settling Constitutional issues or consolidating civil society. The idea that democratization unfolds as a rational process is tenuous. Most change is chaotic, jerky, and moves forward and backward in an irregular manner.

The folly of equating elections with democratization, or as the ultimate expression of democratization, is most troublesome. It is true that Egypt’s elections have been sufficiently controlled and do not measure up as democratic elections, but this is a minor point in the whole process. Sometimes political cultures experience genuine elections but political participation in general and governmental accountability is poor. And it is
certainly possible that elections can result in illiberal authoritarian rule rooted in religion or ideology.

Fourth, there is a tendency to overweight single democratic acts such as vigorous protests and overlook structural conditions that help fashion political outcomes. Successful cases of democratization often display economic well-being, a history of political activity, and a civil society that has outlets for conflict resolution. Egypt has a large Islamic brotherhood party in the region and only a limited experience with democratic political activity. Although the elites are educated and economically comfortable there is a significant portion of the society that is struggling and has little confidence in political institutions.

Finally, many of the successful transitions to democracy during the third-wave were in political polities that were unstable. This poses challenges but also has advantages because when state – building from scratch it is possible to avoid intractable structures of power and wealth that are difficult to eliminate. But this is not the case for Egypt which is
an intact state that has entrenched power structures. Egypt will have to encourage decentralization and strengthen legislative and judicial branches of government after the protesters go home. This will be difficult and a clear barrier to the potential for democratization.

I do not know what will happen in the weeks and months to come but I do know that assessing the political context in Egypt is difficult business. The transition model to democracy is a sophisticated framework even though it applies sporadically to various countries. I share a hope with fellow democracy advocates that Egypt will evolve toward a market economy and liberal democracy. What I am not sure about is the path that it will take.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on February 6, 2011, in Democracy. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is Egypt part of the third wave of democracy.

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