Egyptian Democracy

satellite image of Egypt: wikipedia

Economies are powerful things. One lesson of the past year is that they can topple governments perhaps as fast as can conventional forces sent by history’s most powerful military. In Europe, the basic story has been sovereign debt crises impacting global markets and scaring so thoroughly the elite technocrats that steer them that these technocrats decided they ought to be steering governments as well. In North Africa, rising food prices converging with both massive (largely youth) unemployment and political resentment has forced governments to abdicate more reluctantly.

On to Egypt

What’s funny about democracy advocates is how particular their definition of democracy often is. As the examples of Lebanon and Palestine have shown, if the wrong sort of party gets elected to government, then that country’s democracy is unrecognized. So the same kinds of voices are rumbling now w/r/t the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Sadly, for these voices, representative democracy doesn’t always equate to liberal democracy.

It’s clearly the case, for whatever reasons, that Egyptians tend to identify with Islamically-eponymous political groups, many of which are not “liberally democratic” in the western understanding. But that’s how elections work. You can’t count the votes, see that the result doesn’t suit your understanding of how things should work and then throw the votes out saying that if only the people had more time to organize properly or educate themselves properly or whatever then they would see the incorrectness of their views. Well, you can, of course, but then you can’t call yourself a democracy advocate.

Give the FJP some time

It needs to be stressed that the FJP has said that it will not form a coalition with the hard-line Nour Party, representing the Salafists, and that it will instead attempt to form a more cohesive coalision. It’s very likely that the FJP will turn out to be a much more moderate party than the west currently understands it to be. It might not, of course, but I think the party should be given time to work out the stuff of governing before all kinds of crazy conclusions are jumped to.* They’ve never actually been in government before, and it seems to me just as likely that they moderate for the sake of efficient governance as that they start persecuting all the secularists. Westerners generally fear anything with the name “Islam” in it, which is hypocritical and insulting to those of us who don’t feel all that comfortable with groups with the name “Christian” in it; and yet we don’t go around calling all these groups fanatics or whatever.

Voters tend to exhibit one of two kinds of behavior when voting. They either vote expressively, i.e., for the candidate/party they most identify with, or they vote instrumentally, i.e., for the candidate/party they feel offers the best hope of governing stably, efficiently and responsibly. This breakdown roughly corresponds to the responsive versus responsible dialectic that governments themselves negotiate delicately. What just happened in Egypt, and likely happens a lot in emergent democracies, is that voters voted expressively. Having never witnessed any of the parties actually govern, Egyptians voted for the party they felt best represented their interests/values. My guess is that two things will happen as Egyptian democracy develops: (1) Egyptians will begin voting more instrumentally, and (2) political parties will begin governing less representatively and more efficiently.

A more efficient government

In Egypt, a country with high unemployment, high population growth, rising food prices and a volatile political scene among other things, the faster the new government moves toward the efficient and responsible (as opposed to the responsive and representative) model, the better. There are many practical, development issues that have to be dealt with in order for the economic conditions that gave rise to the unrest not to persist. I’m no expert on Egypt, but I do know these problems involve wheat, population growth, water and energy. I’m not sure Desertec is the answer, but I certainly think it’s an extremely promising idea that needs to get started in earnest. And the best way for this project (and others like it) to get off the ground is for FJP to quickly realize it’s in all of Egypt’s best interest to govern in a practical and responsible way.

But before the project of efficient governance can get underway, two questions need to be answered. First, what role will the military play? Second, will religion and issues of morality drive public policy moving forward or will these things take a back seat to the more mundane problems the country currently faces?

* Another view is that the FJP are just talking the moderate game to protect themselves from the military and international backlash that would ensue if they voiced their true agenda. Either way, what’s clear is that the FJP are picking up the game of politics quite quickly.

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