Leading article

Egypt shows us that elections aren’t enough

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

Democracy and holding elections are not the same thing. There could be no better demonstration of this than the experience of Egypt. Protesters who two years ago gathered in Cairo to force a dictator out of office, and to win the right to replace him with an elected governmentS, are back — this time to demand the resignation of the president whom they elected.

The likely result is, by popular demand, a return to what preceded the Arab spring of 2011: a military dictatorship, for a period at least. From a western perspective this is inexplicable: why would people want to risk their lives to overthrow a military-backed president, only to come back two years later to reverse what they seemed to have achieved? But then the West sees the events in Egypt through the prism of societies where democracy has evolved over a much longer period — centuries, in the case of Britain and the US. The experience of young democracies is that they often do have sharp reversals. Hold an election in a country which lacks the traditions and institutions of an established democracy and the question can all too easily be: which dictator would you like next? As in Egypt, as in Russia: there are plenty who wonder what the revolution was all about.

The West needs to learn from Egypt because for the past two decades the US and its allies have been too keen to believe that a country is free when it holds elections. When we have intervened, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have tended to treat the first elections as a pivotal moment following which, excepting a few hiccups, the country will necessarily embark on an enlightened path to peace, stability and respect for human rights. When the elections are followed by further chaos we have tended to tell ourselves (like Donald Rumsfeld dismissing the murderous aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow with the words ‘freedom’s untidy’) that it is just a bit of exuberance from a people who have been oppressed for decades.

The lesson of Iraq, Afghanistan and now Egypt is that democracy only works when a freely elected parliament is supported by the other institutions which guarantee freedom in the West: fair and independent courts, a police force reasonably free of corruption, a free press, an army which does not seek to intervene in political debate. It is a paradox that while the West has encouraged elections in every Middle Eastern country in which it has found itself involved, many of our friends in the region have been countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia whose leaders do not themselves bother seeking a mandate from their people. They are countries whose attitude to human rights leaves plenty to be desired, yet it is easier to do business with them than with a volatile democracy.

David Cameron acted boldly over Libya, and his instincts in that case were vindicated by events. But this should not give him a taste for interfering in Arab politics. It is tempting to take sides when a country seems to have a chance to overthrow a theocracy or military dictatorship; to think that with a nod and a wink, a missile and a tank, we can groom a favoured leader whom the people might be inclined to rubber-stamp at the polls. But such efforts usually backfire, and anyway, in Cairo today, America’s opinion counts for little. What Britain thinks matters even less.

The Arab Spring was welcomed by those who believed that any regime change had to be for the better — because history was on a course towards liberal democracy. As Egyptians have found, things are not quite so straightforward: the ballot boxes brought new waves of sectarian bloodshed and new shortages of food, fuel and security. Britain can hope that Egypt will evolve into a stable democracy. But we will not speed up that process by trying to bully or cajole it in a particular direction. This time we would do better to admit that we do not have the answers.

A prize for seeing clearly

To see what is in front of one’s nose, George Orwell said, needs a constant struggle. This is especially true when it comes to the environment. An energetic green lobby conjures up all manner of illusions to divert our attention from self-evident truths. Shale gas now stands as an obvious potential solution to our energy needs: the British Geological Survey last week found 1,300 trillion cubic feet of it in Lancashire. That site by itself could transform the fortunes of British industry. And yet in Westminster, the debate over the Energy Bill proceeds as if fracking did not exist and wind farms were a sensible way to generate power on a national scale.

On such important issues, we need more truth, less distraction. With that in mind, this year’s Spectator Ridley prize will offer £5,000 to the essay which best gores a sacred cow of the environmental movement. The prize money comes from a subsidy which the author and scientist Matt Ridley receives from a windfarm development on his family’s land. He loathes the development, and wants the money put to a good cause. The winning essay need not take aim at wind farms, but should expose any pseudoscience and groupthink which lets bad ideas influence government policy with a minimum of intellectual opposition. You can find further details of the second annual Ridley prize at: new.spectator.co.uk/ridleyprize.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • greggf

    “Shale gas now stands as an obvious potential solution to our energy needs….”

    A compromise will be reached where wind farms will have shale gas power plants for backup!

  • Augustus

    “Egypt shows us that elections aren’t enough.”

    What it also shows is the naïveté of people like Obama, clinging to the concept that elections with democratic characteristics absolutely guarantee that societies everywhere will be democratic and pluralistic. While there were already signs of the dictatorial and intolerant characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt last year, where was the stick to accompany the carrot of economic aid? Of course, any crisis that intrudes on summer golf or yacht outings is an uninvited guest, and no doubt we would all be much better off if both Obama and Kerry got on a boat and simply sailed away. But perhaps they’ll now wake up from the world of illusions and finally recognize the large gap between the Western democratic model and the nature of existence in the Middle East.

    • William Reid Boyd

      The point is there shoudn’t have been a ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ regime in the first place (article 4 of the Egyptian consitutioin forbids the formation of religious parties). However it became clear that Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party in government was just a proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood and that is why the army eventually stepped in. The Speccie’s piece right on the money I think.

      We would certainly be better keeping out of Egypt’s affairs at this time, but at the same time we are entitled to pursue our interests in the region. Hard to see where we the UK, or Obama for that matter, can be at fault or what your beef actually can be. Eye-swivelling reactionary I fancy, and not edifying.

      • Augustus

        The events in Egypt have shown that Obama’s strategy of leading from behind is nothing but a cover for a spineless policy with minimal consistency. The U.S. is being dragged by events, rather than trying to influence them. They’ve learnt nothing from history. Like Nasser in the Kennedy era, Morsi won generous credit and unconditional political support from Washington, despite the obvious oppressive and authoritarian nature of his regime. And now they’ve treated the crisis in Egypt this past weekend as if it was a momentary nuisance that could be struck from the agenda in one breath.

        • William Reid Boyd

          I remember watching Nasser’s inaugral presidential parade from our balcony overlooking the Nile as a boy. That of course was Eisenhower’s time. Afer we the UK cocked it up big time (with massive consequence for our family’s well-being and very many others like ours it’s worth mentioning) over Suez scarcely a month later, it fell to Eisenhower to define the West’s policy over the Middle East, essentially one of containing a perceived ‘communist’ threat from the USSR, cold war stuff. Kennedy for his part declared a willingness to support modernising movements in the Middle East. There was nothing unconditional about it however, and in the event it all came to nought.

          The US in this instant have simply supported the democratic process in Egypt. Recent events have natuarally been difficult to respond to, but I can’t see anything unprincipled about our response. Aid proferred is on hold until democracy is restored.

          Still eye-swivelling stiff from you as far as I’m concerned. What should ‘we’ (or America) do to lead from the front? Send in gunboats perhaps? Land paras at Port Said?

          • Augustus

            “What should ‘we’ (or America) do to lead from the front? Send in gunboats perhaps? Land paras at Port Said?”

            Of course not. But America’s stance has been deeply skewed and lacking in judgement. Washington declared its support for Morsi at first, regardless of what at least half the Egyptian people seemingly wanted. It’s now too late to do very much while the Egyptian military is busy with raids, arrests, shutting down television and radio stations and firing at the masses, all in the name of the democratic vision. Civil war looms and even the people’s army can’t stop Egyptian civilians turning against each other. The situation is reminiscent of Syria.The political instability Egypt will be facing in the near future is the jihadis’ paradise.

          • William Reid Boyd

            Well, I’ll defer. I don’t myself think the situation is at all like Syria’s. I should have thought the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ambitions are at an end for the forseeable future (Morsi’s call for help from outside did not go down at all well). Al Noura are plainly on the ascendent, but those are quite different demographics from the Brotherhood’s.

            I’m sure we both agree with The Spectator that we shoudn’t be overly involving ourselves (‘interfering’), that indeed democratic elections are not by themselves a guarantee of a democracy and that here is no doubt a long and painful road ahead for the democratic process.

            Thank you for putting up with me!

          • Augustus

            Thank you for your responses. Egypt will only really return to normality if it becomes a model of democracy. As this apparently won’t happen tomorrow, the person who will paradoxically drag Egypt out of the mud could be a new Mubarak, but someone more palatable and less corrupt. Perhaps a worthy candidate might be one of those officers who deposed Mubarak. And if the officer removes his uniform everyone will be satisfied. Everyone except the Muslim Brotherhood. Just like during the Mubarak regime.

  • Iain Hill

    Just heard the pontificating of Blair on Channel 4. Why doesn’t the Quartet (who they?) get shot of him?