While I was doing the research for my last series of posts (Strange Bedfellows), I kept coming across articles, editorials and even whole books lamenting the poor track record of countries around the world that are struggling to install functioning democracies. Almost all these sources were unconsciously patronizing, as though if those stupid countries would only follow America’s example (or Western Europe’s), all would be well.
The prime examples that raise commentators’ ire are the Arab nations that (according to this narrative) “wasted” the Arab Spring. As revolutionary fervor spread across the Arab world in what was surely an historic geopolitical moment, tyrant after tyrant fell. So far, so good. But in no case was the resulting power vacuum filled by a Western-style functioning democracy.
A particular object of Western ire has been Egypt. Sure, the Egyptian people rose up and toppled Mubarik. Then they held a generally fair election and Mohamed Morsi became president. The Egyptians were – finally! – following the Western script. But then – backsliding! Mr. Morsi had been in office barely a year before the Egyptians rose up and threw the bum out! What sort of sorry excuse for a democracy is that?
But before we fairly gag over our own superiority, let’s think about this for a minute. Mohammed Morsi, whom, for all I know is a swell guy, was a terrible president. He barely squeaked into office, prevailing over a badly divided opposition. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose extreme understanding of Islam was approved of by only a tiny minority of Egyptians. He badly mismanaged a fragile economy that couldn’t stand much mismanagement. Worst of all, he was doing his level best to perpetuate the Muslim Brotherhood in power forever.(1)
In pretty short order, the Egyptians had had enough and they demanded that the Egyptian military topple Morsi, just as they’d toppled Mubarik. True, if the Egyptians had spent more time reading the New York Times editorial page, they might have scheduled a recall election, or they might have just grinned-and-bore-it until the next election, hoping by then that they weren’t living in a Muslin Brotherhood dictatorship. But since the Egyptians have better things to do then to read the New York Times, they did what they always do: they demanded that the Egyptian army intervene, which it did. And, then, just to prove how much the army was acting on behalf of the people, the people turned around and elected Field Marshal (technically, ex-field marshal, since generals can’t run for office in Egypt) al-Sisi by a huge majority.
Exactly why is it that the election of dangerous and incompetent Morsi is to be celebrated, while the election of the wildly popular al-Sisi is shameful? Has the West forgotten how catastrophically bad election outcomes can be? One thinks of Hamas, for example (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood), one thinks of Maliki in Iraq, one thinks of Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and his cardboard successor. But what one really thinks of, right here in the Wonderful West, is Adolph Hitler.
In the elections of 1930 and 1932 the Nazi party roared from nowhere to become the largest party in the Reichstag,(2) and in January of 1933 Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor by President Hindenburg. All done totally by the Western-democracy-playbook, except that the results were horrific for all of mankind. If the German people had only had as much sense as the Egyptian people, the German army would have removed Hitler (and, if we got a little lucky, hanged the bastard), suppressed the Nazi thugs and organized new elections. That small bit of common sense would have spared the human race the seven worst years in its long and sordid history.
But our democracy fetish didn’t always cause our brains to stop working. In 1776, England was the closest thing to a true democracy on the planet. But that didn’t stop the American colonists from recognizing oppression when they saw it. In 1860, eleven American states’ duly elected legislatures duly voted to secede from the US. But the North blithely ignored this exercise in democracy and beat those unfortunate democracies into submission.
There are serious, fundamental problems with our democracy fetish. I’d tell you what they are, but I have to rush off to my son’s middle school soccer game. We’ll take up the subject in Part 2.
(1) After nobody got anywhere near a majority in round one of the Egyptian elections, Morsi got 51% of the vote in round two against a virtually unknown opponent. Despite the lack of a mandate and the need to generate a consensus to govern, Morsi promptly granted himself unlimited powers as president, as well as the power to pass laws without judicial review. He also issued an Islamist draft constitution and proposed a referendum to adopt it. In effect, Morsi had used his “democratic” election to effect an Islamist coup.
(2) In 1928 the Nazis held only 12 seats in the Reichstag. Two years later, they had 107, and by 1932 they had peaked at 230 seats. The next largest party, the stolid Social Democrats, had 133.
Next up: Do We Have a Democracy Fetish? (Part 2)
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