Two Ways to Think about Egypt and the Birth Pangs of Democracy

We are in a very real sense witnessing Egypt’s struggle to shed the skin of authoritarianism and emerge as a democracy. One of the more important debates that accompany this struggle is just how democracies do emerge. Must they go through phases? Are certain cultures susceptible to authoritarianism and will never democratize? How long does it take? There is lively debate over these matters and I encourage anyone to read the Journal of Democracy (JOD).

Few people would question the value of democracy as a form of governance. In fact, it is on its way to becoming a universal value. It simply has tremendous advantages such as an outlet for conflict resolution, rarely waging war against one another, promoting privatization and economic development, and generally less likely to abuse its citizens. The thorny issues are still how we turn antiquated cultures into democratic ones. Some people stress preconditions such as economic development, equality, and certain cultural traits having to do with associational skills. Sheri Berman (Journal of Democracy, 18, 2007) offers an insightful summary of how democracies emerge. She explains how the “preconditionists” stress the importance of national prerequisites and others are “universalists” who claim that democracy can develop in many ways and be successful in diverse political environments. The “third wave” of democracy beginning in 1974 seemed to favor the “universalists” since dozens of countries with diverse cultural backgrounds made the transition.

Egypt seems to be one more domino falling into line after Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. The universalists are convinced that democracy can emerge anywhere and such an attitude prompted the United States incursion into Iraq and Afghanistan. We were convinced that we can plant the seeds of democracy and watch them grow in these alien soils. It remains to be seen just how naïve we have been. But more interesting, and related more directly to Egypt, is a new perspective by preconditionists who insist that a developmental path must be followed and places like Egypt have much to do to cultivate that path. Fareed Zakaria suggests there must be a tradition of liberalism for democracy to succeed. In the end, the march toward a stable democracy is long and slow but the best way to understand these transitions is to study the countries that have experienced them.

First of all, there is the matter of overthrowing authoritarian regimes and then the matter of replacing them with democracy. These are two different processes requiring two different sensitivities. The old order will desperately hold onto its privileges, and we are seeing some of that now with Egypt’s military. On the other hand, some theorists believe that a strong military and authoritarian government will lead to democracy faster than a weak and feeble semi-democracy. We’ll have to wait and see what direction the Egyptian military takes. Berman in her article mentioned above concludes that it is easier to bring down an authoritarian order then it is to replace it with a stable new one. That is probably a pretty safe conclusion.

In the end, the path to democracy is complex and neither the “preconditionists” or the “universalists” are completely correct. Democracy does not come into being peacefully and it does not emerge in a straight line. It is certainly true that political qualities such as freedom, prosperity, and tolerance both stimulate democratic sensibilities and are in turn developed as a result of democratic behavior. I’m afraid there are no easy answers for the Egyptians. They must undo an old order but put into effect a new one of which they have no experience. It is of little consequence to those living in Egypt now, but only future generations will bring new democratic opportunities to the Egyptians.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on July 15, 2013, in Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Two Ways to Think about Egypt and the Birth Pangs of Democracy.

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