This Is What Democracy Might Look Like!

It's so hard to find a good picture of democracy these days...

Khalil al-Anani’s recentish article on the young reformists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and particularly the desire, expressed in the article and elsewhere, to morph the Brotherhood into a political party along the lines of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), got TBE thinking about what a democratic transition would mean for Egypt’s political forces as currently construed, and some other related questions.

The Parties

We think, but can’t really prove, that a lot of US-based analysts in particular make the mistake of assuming that Egypt’s political system would evolve into a two-party system, most likely with one party based on the Brotherhood and the other based on the NDP. Perhaps that would occur in the long run, depending on what institutions this democracy developed, but in the early days we think things would be quite different.

Under conditions of democracy, where the option to opt out would be more attractive, the Brotherhood probably would split into at least two parties. The young Brothers already talk about transforming the Brotherhood into an AKP-style party, and the old guard would probably in this scenario become something akin to Turkey’s “Happiness” party, though perhaps with more electoral appeal in a young democracy than the Happiness party had in Turkey. (If you’re interested in the Turkish Islamist parties’, which are really fascinating, this article by Ziya Öniş is a decent place to start, with the added benefit that it’s not behind a firewall. There are several Turkish scholars whose work is worth checking out. Here’s another article, by Haldun Galulp, that we found for free online.)

Likewise the NDP, within which there are also fissures, between, for example, the Gamal-dominated Policies Committee and the old-style party barons, which TBE refers to as the Lions in Winter Committee (لجنة الأسود في الشتاء) which one can surmise is much less enthusiastic about the privatization drive than Gamal’s gang. Even when not profitable, state-run enterprises are cash cows for someone. And we’re not judging. Refilling your World Bank prescriptions on a regular basis doesn’t necessarily cure you of scleroticism. And even though the new generation may have gained power within the NDP, the old guards’ policies are likely still more popular on the street, judging by the strike wave and the widely noted (and obvious to the naked eye) disparities in wealth that have coincided roughly with the period of Gamal’s ascendancy and are closely associated with him and the businessmen’s cabinet. This leads us to doubt whether the Gamal-led faction would have much electoral appeal, at least at the outset. The party would basically be what northeastern Republicans were in the US, fiscally conservative and socially liberal, which might work in a country with a broad middle class but wouldn’t in Egypt where such a middle class, though arguably growing, has not yet reached critical mass.

As for other parties, we’re sure they would also enjoy some electoral appeal, and would likely take some seats in parliament, again depending on the institutional structure. (As an aside, we believe that The New Institutionalists is probably the political science trend most likely to become an indie rock band name.)

How It Might Happen

An ideal, though perhaps unlikely, scenario would see democracy not imposed from the top down but starting at the local level, not to foster democratic feelings and understanding among the citizenry – for we’re quite sure those feelings already exist – but to accustom politicians, both current and prospective, to the vagaries of actually existing governance while also providing voters with information about the policy preferences and general competence of their elected leaders in relatively low-stakes elections.

The results of the top-down model have been dismal, and they tend to reinforce a system in which personality trumps policy, a fact that helps the ruling party (because it has the best propaganda apparatus) while also tending to exclude discussion of bread-and-butter issues and instead veer into the realm of symbolic politics. It’s great that you want to deport the Swiss ambassador, but how do you plan to balance the budget?

We at TBE have never understood why professional democracy promoters both in Egypt and abroad haven’t done more to push for local elections. This should work along the same lines as the US tradition of the states as democratic “laboratories,” where ideas can be implemented and refined on a small scale before appearing to the national stage. It would be incredibly useful in a country moving towards democracy, by ensuring a smoother transition and assuaging fears, justified or not, that Egypt or anywhere else becoming democratic would be a leap into the unknown, with a completely unpredictable outcome.

A Quick Kung Fu Battle With A Straw Man

If Egypt were to become a democracy, the powers the executive currently enjoys would almost certainly be curtailed. This alone should calm some fears of an “Islamist takeover,” which are probably misplaced anyway, as should the fact that, even in the case of a president from an Islamist party and an Islamist-dominated parliament, the parliament wouldn’t be expected to be a rubber stamp, as it is now, because representatives would most likely care more about things like tending to their constituencies and getting re-elected than enacting the dread sharia law, as some Islamophobes in democrats clothing might have you think.

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1 Comment

Filed under Academics, Politics

One response to “This Is What Democracy Might Look Like!

  1. Jamal

    How does what you are suggesting differ from what actually happened in Algeria in the early-90s which still didn’t turn out so well? Local elections went first there after all. Just speed? Or something more foundational?

    Good thought piece by the way.

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