Democracy is the product of a process; it is not the product of instantaneous results. Egypt – and much of the Middle East – is at the threshold of this process. At times it will be necessary for the military to step in and restore order and stability – as long as they know when to step out again. Hectoring, lecturing and pressure from the West not only will not help advance the democratic process in exactly those countries we want to help, it will denigrate the accomplishments of the West.
By Steven E. Meyer
After two weeks of massive anti-government demonstrations throughout Egypt the military has removed President Mohamed Morsi from office a year after having been elected by a solid majority of the Egyptian people. But, as the opposition argues, Morsi has been an abject failure. The ensuing debate as to whether this was a military coup is essentially irrelevant. A duly elected President has been removed from office by the military. But, the military, which wants distance itself from the political process, quickly replaced Morsi with the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court pending new elections. General Abdel el-Sissi, Egypt’s highest ranking military officer, has made it clear that the Egyptian military – as is true in Turkey – wants to be seen as the protector of democracy, but in a stable, non-violent environment. Unlike the situation as recently as the 1980s, today the military in Egypt as well as Turkey does not want to control the government. While the military still plays a vital role in determining who rules in much of the Middle East, in most cases it does not want to hold political power itself – at least for now.
Predictably, many voices now have surfaced arguing that Egypt’s march to democracy has been seriously damaged. For example, in an editorial in the New York Times, Samer Shehata argues that we are seeing a struggle between Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, who were elected by democratic means but are not liberals, and an opposition that is liberal, but not democratic. As clever and rhetorically enticing as Shehata’s argument is, it misses the point. Shehata and his cohorts—including the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it—apply modern, Western democratic standards to situations and places that are absolutely devoid of any democratic traditions and have almost no understanding of democratic procedure. In the modern era, Egypt has experienced control by imperial Britain, lived under a monarchy and experienced revolution in 1952 that overthrew the regime of King Farouk and destroyed the traditional Egyptian aristocracy. Until 2012 the country was controlled by a tight oligarchy of military and civilian autocrats. Democracy as we understand it in the West was nowhere part of the Egyptian experience.
Democracy per se is not the issue. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” Democracy is a form of government to be envied and desired. The problem is that attaining democracy is an evolutionary process. It cannot be overlaid as whole cloth over a society and political community that has not experienced and embraced the underpinnings of democracy: regularly scheduled elections, political parties, popular elections, parliamentary rule, peaceful change of government accepted by all parties and, perhaps most important of all, civil society.
Despite the fact that Egypt has experienced none of this, the West expects Egypt and similar societies to accept and adapt modern democratic procedures and attitudes tabula rasa. Not only is this impossible for the societies in question, it betrays smug arrogance and historical amnesia on the part of the West. The now great democracies of the West attained their political systems for the most part as the result of an evolutionary progression of history, not as the product of a magical implantation of a foreign system. For example, it has taken the U.S. and France 200 years to achieve what they have accomplished. For Britain, although the evolution has been much longer, it has been the teacher for the modern democratic world. Democracy is the product of a process; it is not the product of instantaneous results.
Egypt – and much of the Middle East – is at the threshold of this process. It is much more important for Egypt to go through a process of trial and error than it is for Egypt to attain magically the right democratic formula. There is no “democratic handbook” for Egypt – just as there is no such source for any society craving democracy. There will be times, as is now that case, for Egypt – and others – to step back, take a breath, recalibrate and try again. Eventually they will get there – at their own pace and according to their own values. And, yes, at times it will be necessary for the military to step in and restore order and stability – as long as they know when to step out again. Hectoring, lecturing and pressure from the West not only will not help advance the democratic process in exactly those countries we want to help, it will denigrate the accomplishments of the West.
Steven E. Meyer is a partner in the firm TSM Global Consultants and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. Before that he worked for many years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his last position was as a Deputy Chief of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Balkan Task Force during the wars of the 1990s. After leaving the CIA, Dr. Meyer taught national security studies, American foreign policy and comparative politics at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the Free University of Amsterdam. He received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. degree from Fordham University in New York and a PhD from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., both in comparative politics. He has published in several journals and is working on a book on the changing structure of the international system.