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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Short Note on Egypt and Democracy

The World Bank says India' population in 2009 touched 1.16bn.  A question for Dr. Manmohan Singh - what does it feel to lead a billion people?

Yours, learning about Egypt analyst,


First some numbers: these were sampled from a survey by Pew Research Center released on December 2, 2010.  Pakistan or Turkey? - which country does Egypt appear closer to in its proclivity for a liberal democracy?

Source: Pew Research Center (click the picture for a larger image)

My thoughts on this matter were triggered by an  article by Hamid Shadi for FP which ends with:

"Of course, a major question remains: does the United States, in fact, want real democracy in Egypt? Or would it prefer that the current regime -- perhaps after agreeing to reforms -- somehow stay in power?"

I do not think Shadi has got it right.

First, the protests in Egypt are not against the regime but the public face of the regime - Hosni Mubarak.  The regime comprises senior armed forces personnel and the armed forces remain a widely respected institution.  From the patterns of the protests and of the reaction of the protagonists to those protests it appears that the regime has used the events in Tunisia to ensure clear success in their plan for a change of guards. Scheduled to be played out during the Presidential elections in September this year, the tussle between the armed forces and Hosni Mubarak on the latter's succession is now being played out in the streets of major cities in Egypt.  Genuine grievances are a powerful force. They are being channelized to put to rest Mubarak's succession plans [1].

As for Shadi's question that I have italicized for emphasis, I think the US has answered it.  This is how I see it:

In the state of general equilibrium, a 'true democracy' would reflect the will of the people. Political power in Egypt today rests with two groups - the West-supported elites and Islamists [2].  At another time in the past the Arab nationalists and the Arab socialists were a powerful force in the Egyptian society. However due to  natural societal proclivities in Egypt, the success of the American policy in the region and the fact that boundaries in the region were drawn by extra-regional powers not with historical legitimacy in mind but with the goal to re-anchor the European balance of power in the wake of precipitous decline of the Ottoman empire, legitimate opposition was gradually pushed towards the Islamists.

People such as Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei receive generous coverage in the English press.  However they are considered by Egyptians as a paratrooper [3] who will get sidelined or perhaps, given time and a chance at the helm, will develop no different from the tight-fisted rulers that four generations of Egyptians have become accustomed to.  The chance of the former occurring is far higher as they lacks the street-survival skills that Mubarak had finessed or the Islamists possesses [4].

Thus the only natural equilibrium conditioned on 'true democracy' is a rule wherein Islamists gain a significant share of power.  It will be a democracy in the sense that it expresses the desire of the average citizen but will not carry any of the hallmarks of liberal democracies [5].  

Over the medium-term, an Islamist democracy in Egypt will give fillip to calls for its emulation in the broader Arab world.  This will unhinge the current anchors of stability of sovereign boundaries and energy flows from the region and cause a redirection of people's anger in Egypt from local rulers to those that lead in the US, the UK and France.  Russia will be presented a smörgåsbord of geopolitical choices.  While Russia is unlikely to have an appetite for grand strategies in the region [6], it will act on opportunities for re-establishing a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean sea. 

Thus, I do not think the US has an appetite for real democracy in Egypt (or, in other key Arab states - Morocco, Jordan or Saudi Arabia).  It will however continue to push for what Shadi refers to as 'real democracy' in Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

[1] passing the mantle to his son - Gamal Mubarak
[2] An Islamist is a believer in Islamism which I define as the political philosophy based on the axioms that a shared Muslim identity transcends all other forms of societal divisions, that the problems in Muslim societies are caused by an incomplete adherence to Islamic tenets and that such problems can only be resolved through a committed projection of religion into the political sphere.
[3] they lack grassroot support
[4] paradrop is easy, mission accomplished is not 
[5] No, I am not thinking that liberal democracies can spring overnight in the region.  However, if a reasonably democratic state is established once the dust settles, I think over time it will be forced increasingly frequently into choices where the only alternative to the use of force will be to watch a creeping takeover of the state by those who believe in democracy only insofar as it enables a takeover of the system.
[6] Building closer ties with Germany, the Caucasus and tightening its grip over energy routes that go to Europe from the former Soviet states will keep Russia occupied for the next decade.

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