What It REALLY Means to Be a Democracy: Egypt Ain’t It.

I grow weary of listening to all these claims of developing democracies in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. It’s well enough understood that elections alone don’t mean much and some minor rabble rousing from the population is equally as trivial. I have little interest in pseudo-democracies, hybrid democracies, illiberal democracies, nondemocratic but liberal states, and societies where strands of democracy exist but must be upheld and supported by the military of all institutions.

A true democracy achieves consolidation and the best thing one can read on consolidated democracies is by Linz and Stepan (Journal of Democracy, 7, 1996). A REAL democracy, one that is established and fully functional, is a system of institutions and communication patterns that does not compete with anything else. Places like Egypt and Libya will be considered truly democratic when the current regimes no longer have to grapple with the problem of governmental breakdown. When the majority of people believe that any political change must only emerge through the democratic process, when there is no significant movement to control or overthrow the government, then democracy is taking hold in a culture.

In REAL democracies the actors do not spend their time trying to create nondemocratic processes. Certainly the military does not step in and remove someone from office. It is true that removal of an anti-democratic leader can be part of the transition to a genuine democracy, but this represents an early unstable stage of development not what I am calling a REAL democracy. In such democracies the population holds the belief that democratic institutions are the only way to govern and any support for an alternative system is small. Democracies remain a continuum from well-developed liberal democracies (the US, France) to lower quality pseudo-democracies (Venezuela, authoritarian groups democratically elected, e.g. Hamas). And these lower quality democracies are marked by the ease with which nondemocratic alternatives gain support.

REAL Democracies Have the Following Features:

First, the citizenry must be intellectually and politically developed such that they appreciate democratic institutions and support the role they play. An angry tribal citizenry, who might be more properly termed “subjects” than “citizens,” will have trouble meeting the standards of an educated citizenry who have the proper democratic habits of mind. Democracy is advanced citizenship and often runs contrary to the preference of many for quick and easy decisions. A democratic population requires a level of sophistication.

Secondly, you know that a democracy is stable when the society has an active and influential civil society. Still, a stable civil society is not enough. Egypt has benefited from it civil society because it is increasingly educated and demanding of democratic processes and market economies. The civil society must be able to create pressure on government and leadership; it should have the capacity to monitor government, and resist nondemocratic pressures.

The ability to provide citizens with what they want and actually “get things done” is a third quality of REAL democracies. The institutions and structures of government must be skilled and professional enough to carry out laws and regulate the political system. We are seeing now in Egypt the removal of elected political officials (the justification of which is debatable) and the military cracking down on a significant portion of the population. This is prima facie evidence that the institutions of government are not working in a democratic manner.

There are other important issues associated with genuine democracy (the legal system, the economic structure) but no other is probably as basic as the right of the public to contest policies and priorities. Democracy should not be composed of powerful ideological forces (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood) whose goals are to absorb other groups; rather, the concept of the public sphere should be dominant – a place where representatives from any number of ideologies come together to work out problems that are shared by everyone. Public contestation is the foundation of the interactive system of argument and discussion that is the basis of governance.

Places like Egypt are trying to break free of cultural and political constraints and might be an interesting case of the “transition” to democracy, but do not yet represent REAL democracies.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on August 19, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I agree it would be nice to have a real democracy in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. However, when in the last two thousand years have these countries seen a free democracy?

    It is unrealistic to expect our level of freedom and democracy to be exported to places where it has never existed. I am speaking of the core Middle East.

    Until such time, or even as we see cracks of democracy in places such as Iraq, we have to be realistic in our options. Our options must include in the equation, what is best for us – both short term and long-term.

  2. True enough, the Middle East (using that very general term for the moment) has no history of democratic activity. And they score the lowest on quantitative measures of freedom and democracy. But encouraging and stimulating democratic trends is about the best we can do at the moment assuming we stay away from actual intervention, which of course we should.

    If these countries develop significant democratic patterns over time it is a serious advantage for us and our friends and neighbors. Democracies have more legitimate outlets for conflict resolution and are less violent. So it is a delicate balance between staying out of other people’s business but getting involved just enough. Still, I come down on the side of staying as morally engaged in these places as possible. In other words, avoid force and respect as much of their cultural individuality as possible but still trying to promote change.

  3. We all agree it is an advantage to us, and our friends, for democracies to flourish; and for us to stay engaged enough to encourage this. But there are not democracies in place (in this area), so this is hypothetical. We still have to deal with real-world options. One of those options might be a Mubarak-style government vs. an Islamic Fundamentalist, or Muslim Brotherhood, style of government.

    Do you agree it is acceptable to pick from these options and ally with this less-than-desirable form of government, as long it is in our best interest, and the best interest of our friends?

    Do you think it is acceptable to “promote” one of these (less-than-democratic) options, as long as it is in our self interest?

    • Well sure. That’s exactly what we have been doing. We supported Mubarak and were not particularly happy with him but he served our purposes. We did the same thing with the Shah of Iran until he was run out of town. There are pragmatic reasons for this and I have no problem with that. But perhaps you see the trend here. You spend years supporting Mubarak and the Shah and during that time the populace is beginning to dislike America and associate us with authoritarian thugs. In the meantime you’re not making much progress. But it’s still okay to do business with someone and try to maintain your own individuality. You and I do not have to like each other to do business with one another – but it helps. And you just can’t get away with it for too long in international relations.

      Your question is also motivated by your persistent tendency to associate me with idealism and you with pragmatism. There is probably a little bit of truth to that but not much. I’m not making an idealistic argument about democracy; in fact, I’m making a pragmatic argument about stable relationships (and moral relationships).

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