Reflections From Egypt: What is "True" Democracy

Voter's hand placing ballot into box

My participation in Legacy International’s Legislative Fellows delegation to Egypt this week has included a great deal of discussion regarding what constitutes “true” democracy.  The Egyptians we’ve met have used words including “true” and “pure” to describe the democracy we have in the U.S., contrasting our system with the political system that’s been built in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, which is widely perceived by Egyptians to fall short of “true” democracy.

Yes, Egypt has held parliamentary, presidential and constitutional referendum elections over the past two years, but the legitimacy of the government remains in question.  Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary and presidential elections were held before a new constitution was drafted, under election laws that were issued by the interim “caretaker” Egyptian Military-based government but later declared unconstitutional by Egypt’s High Constitutional Court.  Egypt’s new constitution was written by a government elected under the unconstitutional election laws, a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.  In addition to the laws under which the elections were conducted being declared unconstitutional, many believe fraud was committed during the elections, including ballot box stuffing and fraudulent counting and reporting of votes cast.

In short, the government of President Morsi, the new constitution and the election process itself have been heavily criticized not only by non-Islamist parties and their supporters, but also by many who actually voted for President Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood candidates.

Egypt’s lower house of parliament was dissolved after the election laws were declared unconstitutional, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, to rewrite election laws to be used in a new lower house parliamentary election that was scheduled for April 2013.  Egypt’s non-Islamist political parties announced they would boycott the election, not wanting to lend legitimacy to an undeserving political system.  The non-Islamist parties’ objections were validated last week, when the election laws to be used in next month’s election were declared unconstitutional for too-strongly favoring the Muslim Brotherhood ruling party in a number of ways.  President Morsi and the Shura Council this week appealed the court decision invalidating the election law, leaving little hope that they will voluntarily fix the problems with the election law.  The election has been postponed indefinitely.

Actions of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council since taking office have further devastated public trust in Egypt’s new “democratically elected” government.  In November 2012, President Morsi issued a constitutional declaration giving himself unlimited powers, making all constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since he assumed power immune to appeal by any individual, political or governmental body.  Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in protest, prodding President Morsi to annul the decree in early December.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State has walked a tightrope in its relations with Egypt, seemingly recognizing as legitimate the newly-elected government of Egypt, while simultaneously recognizing its flaws.  Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo in early March (before next month’s election had been canceled) and met with President Morsi, a move widely interpreted in Egypt as a demonstration of support for President Morsi’s administration and the Muslim Brotherhood, while also releasing a statement entitled “U.S. Support for the Egyptian People”, explaining:

“The upcoming parliamentary elections are a particularly critical step in Egypt’s democratic transition.  We spoke in depth about the need to ensure they are free, fair and transparent.  We also discussed the need for reform in the police sector, protection for non-governmental organizations, and the importance of advancing the rights and freedoms of all Egyptians under the law—men and women, and people of all faiths.”

Given that many Egyptians look to the U.S. as a model for democracy, a “true” and “pure” democracy, I have been asked repeatedly why the U.S. government has seemingly endorsed such a flawed political process here in Egypt and, in doing so, given legitimacy and credibility to President Morsi’s government.  And Tuesday, while speaking with a group of about 200 students at Cairo University, I was asked point blank what a “true” democracy is by a student wondering whether, in my view, the political system that has been built here in Egypt since the revolution qualifies.  It was an excellent, challenging question.

I responded that the notion of a true, pure democracy is a theoretical ideal that does not exist.  We all get to define what democracy means to us.  The people of Egypt get to decide what constitutes a legitimate democracy in Egypt.  I explained that 100 years ago, the U.S. was broadly perceived to be a legitimate democracy, yet women were not allowed to vote, 60 years ago, people of color were effectively barred from voting in much of the southern U.S., and only recently have we elected our first African-American president.  Building democracy in the U.S. has been a difficult, ugly process—a fight that continues every day at the Campaign Legal Center.  Democracy, to me, is a political system good enough to keep me engaged; good enough to give me hope that I can fight for and win expansion of political rights with my thoughts and words and ballots rather than by spilling blood in the streets.

I told the students at Cairo University that if they wait for a “true” and “pure” democracy before engaging in, rather than boycotting, the electoral process, they may spend their whole lives waiting.  The unintended consequence of a string of boycotts could be to delay indefinitely the “true” and “pure” democracy they await.  I also shared my belief that the most difficult and important challenge to a nascent democracy is not holding the first election but, rather, living with the results of the first election and proceeding to another election through which political power can be peacefully transferred between competing factions.

According to some Egyptian politics experts I met this week, the biggest hurdle for non-Islamist political parties and their supporters is their general lack of organization by comparison to the 85 year-old Muslim Brotherhood, not the flawed election laws and process.  The best course of action for non-Islamists may be to roll up their sleeves and get to work organizing to win elections in an undeniably-flawed electoral system.  It’s the only system they’ve got.

Unfortunately, none of this political theory may matter in the short term.  President Morsi and his government have badly managed the economy, which is on the verge of collapse.  Many predict that the current energy shortage will escalate into an unbearable crisis this summer, as air conditioner usage causes blackouts around the nation.  The roads are already jammed with mile-long lines of trucks waiting for diesel fuel from empty pumps.  Food riots and general chaos may only be months away.  If such a scenario unfolds, President Morsi may not make it through the summer.  Instead, the Egyptian Military, which enjoys extremely high approval ratings and trust from the Egyptian people, may find itself back in charge, quelling riots and hitting the reset, or worse the pause, button on Egypt’s post-revolution march towards democracy.  The people of Egypt deserve better—all people do—and I hope they get it sooner than later.