Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Root of Egypt's Problems?

My friend Steve Saideman has recently posted some excellent stuff on what's going on in Egypt, despite his avowed position that he doesn't know much about Egyptian politics. His emphasis on the basic rules of democracy is an extremely important reminder of what underlies democratic politics in any nation. Since I don't know much about Egypt either, I am naturally going to follow him down that road.

One thing I think may be missing from his list is a condition necessary for democracies to work. When we think about democracies and defining them, we think about process - the how of politics. But most people aren't process people, they're outcome people - they care a great deal more about what happens then about how it happens.

People's willingness to tolerate or go along with various sets of process rules tends to hinge on whether the outcomes generated are acceptable. As the aphorism goes, if you don't like the game, change the rules. Egyptians didn't overthrow Mubarak because he was undemocratic; they overthrew him because they were tired of corruption and being randomly thrown in jail and being poor.

This helps explain, by the way, why otherwise fundamentally undemocratic systems that produce acceptable outcomes (Singapore?) are stable. If you're wealthy and have a reasonable amount of freedom in your personal and professional life, it's harder to get you to take up arms against the tyranny of government.

What does this have to do with Egypt? The current inability to form a stable government, and the reason for the military takeover, may relate to an underlying problem: factions within Egypt have definitions of "acceptable political outcomes" so fundamentally divergent that there is no space available for stable politics.

We expect there to be differences of opinion - every society has those. In functioning democracies, those differences are not so severe that different factions refuse to accept outcomes acceptable to the other side(s) and turn instead to revolt and open revolution. Aside from a very small number of fringe elements in the US, even the current state of polarization in American politics hasn't led anyone take up arms, either against the state or against members of the other party. As Steve pointed out, even the contested 2000 election was settled not by the military but by the courts. It's been two generations since we've seen any significant armed resistance to political outcomes.

Contrast this with Egypt today, which is clearly sharply and perhaps irrevocably divided between numerous factions. The Islamists put together a coalition big enough to win an election. But the outcome they wanted was beyond the range of tolerance for other groups in society, who rose up against a "democratically elected" government - a clear case of political outcomes trumping the supposed legitimacy of the process itself. Now that the military has swept the Islamists from power, the latter are starting to resist forcefully as well (if not yet effectively), and it isn't clear that there's enough common ground among the non-Islamist factions to base even a temporary government on.

The logical conclusion to this line of reasoning is a depressing one: Egypt may simply be too divided to have a functioning democracy. If that is the case, all the elections and constitutional conventions in the world won't solve the problem - they simply provide new battlegrounds on which various factions will fight their winner-take-all battles. In that case, military rule may in fact by the only stable solution that prevents the country from sliding into civil war.

The solution to Egypt's crisis lies, as it always does, with Egyptians. The military or various political leaders may be able to help, but in the end democracy there will only work if there's enough overlap in what different people think of as acceptable political outcomes to base "normal" politics on. Given the violence of the last few weeks, it seems that point is a ways off. Until then, I suspect we're in for a period of either protracted instability or prolonged military rule - and despite our own democratic predilections, the latter may be preferable to the former.

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