The Arab Autumn When Democracy Fails (And Autocracy Too)

Ghia Nodia

How should we evaluate what is happening in Egypt? The democratic world is in deep confusion about the events and cannot clearly figure out what to say. The situation is indeed something to be confused about.

Revolution -
Mark II or Restoration?

First came the Arab Spring (in reality, it began in winter – but who cares? Metaphorical thinking has its own rules; moreover, it is warm in Egypt in winter too): people took to the streets with demands that the dictator step down and democratic order be installed. The people made that happen: the dictator stepped down, a democratic election was held and the victor was chosen by the people. From the outset, the democratic world found it difficult to formulate its position ("Mubarak is a normal guy compared to some of the others, is he not?" "Arabs and democracy are so incompatible"), but it soon came to its senses and thunderously applauded the Arab Spring. What else could it do? When there is a classical conflict between the people and a dictatorship, how can one not support the former!

However, soon thereafter it became clear that the Egyptian government elected by the people did not act completely democratically; nor had the lives of people improved (rather the opposite was often the case). In general, the "Egyptian Dream" did not work. The same (or almost the same) people who ousted the former dictator, soon took to the same square to demand, this time around, that the new government step down. However, the second act of this drama is not as clear as the first. Consequently, one does not know what to applaud: the people who rally to oppose the legitimate president, whom they themselves elected a year ago; or the large segment of people who continue to support the legitimate government – a segment that is certainly no less willing to take to streets in support of their position. Do not ask me how many people are on each side of the divide – this does not actually matter in terms of democratic legitimacy. What matters is that the role of the arbiter was assumed by the army, i.e. the force which the dictator ousted in the Arab Spring relied on. True, protest rallies were held, but it was precisely the army that fulfilled the technical task of toppling the democrat-dictator.

So, what was that – a continuation of the democratic revolution (the Arab Spring, Mark II) or a military coup (i.e. a restoration)? A global political commentariat is currently engaged in hot debates about this.

The Dilemma of Democracy

The situation in Egypt is familiar, or to put it more eloquently, painfully familiar to us. In my opinion, the assumption that from these two assessments it is necessary to choose one is either a form of doctrinal pedanticism or a political imperative (must you not identify which side you support?). In reality, however, what has happened is both a continuation of the democratic revolution and a military coup.

The drama (or tragedy?) of Egypt is not something new. It portrays a common dilemma that is inherent to democracy as the rule of the masses. What should one do when a democratically elected and popular ruler, who really enjoys the trust of the demos, behaves in an undemocratic way, i.e. deprives that very demos of the chance to dismiss the government it brought to power in accordance with established rules or a constitution after a certain period of time and to replace it with a government more acceptable for the people at that time? Hitler provides the most notorious and dramatic portrayal of this dilemma, but this problem has repeatedly emerged in various forms since then.

Activists of democracy (I should have said, we, activists of democracy) do not really like to be reminded of that dilemma, but the problem is fundamental and cannot be explained by any "subjective factor." The root of this problem is the following: the demos may not be democrats at all. Or to be more precise, the demos are instinctive democrats in the simple sense that they like the idea that they can change government at their will. However, this does not mean sharing those principles without which no modern constitutional democracy can exist: acknowledging the right of the political minority; disagreeing with the majority; expressing one's own will only within those boundaries strictly defined by the constitution; so on and so forth. The demos may not understand that the "people" is, actually, only an abstraction which gives general legitimization to a political system; in reality, there exist multiple different individuals and groups, who (in the case of real democracy), working within the limits of agreed rules, settle the numerous conflicts that arise from opposing opinions and interests.

The romantic perception of democracy is of a square crowded with people demanding that a dictator step down. This image, so often shown on TV screens, fills the hearts of people throughout the world with enthusiasm and solidarity. Emotionally, I am also one such person. But the history of past few centuries has well taught us that the toppling of yet another "Ceausescu" is a relatively easy task and does not mean much in itself. The key is for the demos to subsequently get along with democracy, but this is a much tougher task and is performed less often. If it is not performed, it is normally because the demos is immature.
The first trustworthy indicator of the maturity of the demos are the organizations it establishes. As many analysts note, in the age of Facebook, formal organizations and leaders are no longer required to mobilize the people against "dictatorships." This is good, is it not? Democracy loves spontaneity! But after the dictator has been ousted and the euphoria abated, it is the organizations that play a decisive role.

The only serious organization the Egyptian demos succeeded in establishing was the Muslim Brotherhood. "Serious" means strong, lasting, and adaptable to a changing environment, not one solely dependent on a single person. Another such organization, though created by the ruling elite, is the army. The visions of these two organizations starkly differ, but neither is very fond of democracy. Democracy is something that the people gathered on Tahrir Square want (and, judging from the statements made to Western reporters, I conclude that many of them do sincerely want it). Yes, they do want it, but they are not capable of it; or, to be more precise, they are only capable in the negative parts – they oppose undemocratic rulers but fail to establish serious organizations. Therefore, the victors become those who have organizations. In the Arab Spring, the democratic emotions of the people were used by an undemocratic force – the Muslim Brotherhood – to come to power. In the Arab Autumn, again on the wave of popular enthusiasm, the army settled its score with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Georgian Parallels

Many immature demos are in such a situation, especially in the Islamic world, but not only there. It seems to me that, compared to Egypt, we are a little ahead in terms of democratic development, but face similar problems. So far we have only one serious civil society organization – the Church and other groups exist in its orbit. I will leave it up to the readers to judge how fond this organization is of modern liberal democracy. The segment of civil society that supports Western values is, at best, taking its first steps and no one knows what would be left of it if, god forbid, the West stops feeding it with grants. The former government tried to establish viable organizations: the police, the army and others (doing so, to some extent, at the expense of democratic pluralism). It is premature to say whether or not these will stand the key test – the change of government. The possible emergence of the first real Georgian political party in the form of the United National Movement has given a ray of hope. However, it is too premature to say whether this hope will turn into reality, especially whilst the new government still sees the prevention of such a precedent as its main objective. Other political organizations have not yet been seen.

Thus, in essence, the Georgian demos is in a similar stage of development as Egypt: it no longer puts up with apparent autocracy, but yet lacks the ability to establish lasting democratic institutions.

Practical Lessons

But let's go back to Egypt. "What should we do?" is probably the question the Egyptian democrats are now mulling over. Should we carry on with the revolutions until we are lucky enough to elect a "good government?" This may take decades and in the meantime god knows what will happen to the country and its economy. Should autocracy be maintained until the middle class has become stable and the people have become educated? Modern society cannot tolerate that either. In short, if you are a democrat, you do not have any good option: the choice is between two evils. Last year's hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood would become more measured having come to power and that the rules of democracy would be respected did not prove true. Hopes are now being pinned on the army not using the power it has gained for its own narrow corporate interests and that it will facilitate the establishment of a more inclusive system. Let's wait and see.

But from what has already happened, the friends of democracy – both in Egypt and elsewhere – must learn at least two lessons.

Lesson one: people are not innocent lambs whom dictators take to the slaughterhouse. Sometimes people themselves appoint dictators, create dictators, nudge rulers to act as dictators or – and this is another variation – label rulers as dictators to cover up their own inability and immaturity. Consequently, a key prerequisite for establishing democracy is the development of the "people" or society, which, in turn, does not only mean education or "awareness raising" initiatives by elites, but the development of practical problem-solving skills. This takes time and requires the experience of many crises. No one has yet created an up and running theory of how that happens, though this is the only way democracy is made.

Lesson two: democracy is not a right that Allah or any other higher power makes true. An ambitious desire to live in a democratic environment creates the responsibility to work on the establishment of institutions.
Consequently, democrats must turn their backs on the false slogan – "the System Must Be Demolished." True, systems exist which do need to be demolished, but in most cases this slogan is false. It was, for example, false in Georgia in September 2012. Civilized life is impossible without a system of institutions. However, any institution has serious flaws and these can always be blamed for being repressive to some degree because they set certain limits on the spontaneity of people. The pathos of the calls for the "demolition of the system" easily drives us towards euphoria and narcissism, which block rational reasoning. If you want democracy you must acknowledge that the only correct attitude is: "the system must be built and the responsibility for that lies with me."


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