Egypt as Laboratory for Democracy

Let’s talk a little more about Egypt, guys. Specifically, I want to talk about how Egypt has become a prime example of what has actually be an ongoing conflict between developed Western democracies and countries in the process of both developing and democratizing.

There’s been some debate since the Egyptian military ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi about whether the ouster constitutes a coup or not. Part, though not all, of the answer lies in how we choose to define a democracy.

In countries like the U.S. and Western Europe, the form of government is not technically a democracy, but rather a democratic republic. The people elect representatives to govern on their behalf, and those representatives are supposed to make decisions that reflect the will of their constituents. They are held accountable by elections: if you do a poor job, you will be replaced in the next election cycle.

In this form of government, institutions and elections are the most important benchmarks. If you have regular elections run by transparent, accountable agencies, you have a good government, broadly speaking.

This form of government has generally been the criteria for the West when it judges other, developing democracies. However, the developing democracies themselves can have a different view of things.

In the developing world, you often see a tendency towards more direct democracy. More issues are decided by referenda, not just by representatives in the legislature. And if a politician is failing to represent the people, there is a greater desire to hold them accountable immediately, rather than wait until the next election, which could be several years down the road.

There are pros and cons to each form. The democratic republic tends to be more stable, because when someone is elected, you know they will almost always serve out their entire term. But it can also prove to be less dynamic, with citizens feeling disengaged and like they don’t have a real role in the policies that govern their lives. And a scandal that occurs in the first year of an official’s term might have no repercussions by the next time they’re up for election: people can forget things, lose interest, or lose their sense of outrage.

Direct democracy guarantees people a greater stake in politics, not just during the horse race of an election, but all the time. It can encourage them to more educated and more engaged, and it creates a more immediate way of keeping leaders accountable. But it is also inherently messier, and can lead to more constant upheaval and instability. It’s hard to implement good governance reforms when no one finishes out a term.

When Egyptians turned out en masse to protest Morsi and signed their petition for him to leave office, they were taking direct democratic action. And so those who defend the military’s intervention maintain that the military was defending the will of the people. But to others, the military’s intervention subverted the institutions that are meant to ground a democracy and paved the way to continued upheaval.

They may both have a point.

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