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Egypt’s Undemocratic Democracy

Are democracies just places where there are elections? Or does democracy require something more?

The spectacle in Egypt poses the original question in a different way. A government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was democratically elected one year ago, faces mass protests and a threatened military coup (as I write, it is not quite clear whether the coup has actually taken place yet, but it seems like it is probably coming). The military insists that it, despite being unelected, is carrying out the people’s will—and, judging from the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, it is not exactly lying. Who is right?

Blogger Michael Koplow, who as an expert on Israel and Turkey knows fragile democracy, is opposed to the military coup: Ultimately, he asserts, the principle that free and fair elections confer legitimacy needs to trump the Egyptian people’s legitimate grievances with an ineffectual and in many ways undemocratic government (Egypt, he says flatly, is not a democracy). Yet, he writes, referring to the Islamist, democratically elected leaders of Turkey and Egypt,

Erdoğan, Morsi, and heads of state everywhere need to unlearn the lesson that they have taken away, which is that elections are all that matter and that what happens between elections does not. Voting for one’s leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it harms democracy rather than furthers it. We went through a period in which elections were emphasized as the primary component of democracy promotion, but perhaps now it is time for a switch in which elections are de-emphasized in favor of other things, such as checks and balances, horizontal accountability, respect for minority rights, and other similar factors that have been lost in the shuffle. Elections are needed to usher in democracy, but in a disturbing number of cases elections are now being used to choke off the democracy that they allegedly heralded.

His post, which briefly traces how political scientists have approached defining democracy over the past four decades, is worth reading in full.

And in The New York Times, Georgetown professor and Egypt expert Samer Shehata notes the tragic contradiction at the heart of Egypt’s woes: The democrats are illiberal (that would be the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists), and the liberals are not democrats (they do not want elections if elections give power to Islamists, which they invariably do).

For now, he joins Koplow in hoping that Mohammed Morsi, disastrous though his tenure as president has been, is not ousted:

... using nondemocratic means to remove an elected leader, however inept, subverts the very essence of democracy by departing from its first principle: the dependable transfer of power peacefully through elections.

Even some of Mr. Morsi’s detractors rightly point out that the president’s removal through mass protests and military intervention would set a terrible precedent. Egyptians would be encouraged to take to the streets and ask the generals to intervene whenever a president became unpopular. The genius of democracy, by contrast, is that it wants voters to change their minds when leaders fail and to replace them not in spasms of fury but regularly and for the best reason: that others can better deliver what the people want.

An observation I would add is that in recent years we have learned—or re-learned—that even undemocratically leaders tend, eventually, to be accountable to those whom they govern. Most spectacularly, for example, the Arab Spring saw several autocrats overthrown. Social media gets more credit for empowering ordinary people living under autocratic regimes than it typically deserves, particularly when you remember the ways in which such regimes can also use social media to tighten their grips on power. But some things—social media, globalization, and maybe even the triumph of liberal democracy in whatever ideological contest could be said to have taken place—have made extremely few leaders completely unbeholden to their people.

In that light, the basic structure of democracy—overthrowing the government “regularly and for the best reason” rather than “in spasms of fury”—becomes even more important. If the people are finally getting a voice, then it is crucial that every last citizen receive the opportunity to speak up. Otherwise, you’re just substituting one tyranny for another.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @marcatracy.