Egypt: Don’t confuse democracy with the mere holding of elections

Recently we've seen the emergence of another kind of autocrat. Neither democrat nor dictator, this type of leader holds regular elections and in some cases even introduces ostensibly progressive policies.

Mohamed Morsi

Recently we’ve seen the emergence of another kind of autocrat. Neither democrat nor dictator, this type of leader holds regular elections and in some cases even introduces ostensibly progressive policies.

The late Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Tayyip Erdogan and now Mohamed Morsi are all, in their various guises, what you might call democratators.

The new breed of autocrat has learned the lessons of past dictators and rarely engages in ostentatious displays of violence if avoidable. Nonetheless, they are just as keen to ensure that any opposition to their rule remains weak.

The most benign of the democratators mentioned above was perhaps Chavez.

Although winning numerous elections, however, Chavez still warrants the label of democratator. His governments closed down all but one private television network, ensured that those signing a recall referendum in 2004 lost their state jobs and were discriminated against, and jailed and harassed members of the judiciary whose rulings displeased him.

This may be less bad than the actions of numerous other Latin American caudillos, but it’s certainly not what we’d recognise (or accept ourselves) as democratic rule.

In Turkey and Russia the country’s respective leaders are undoubtedly popular with the electorate but, as Erdogan himself once put it, they view the ballot box as comparable to catching a train – “when you get to your station, you get off.” Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world, while Putin’s government brands NGOs “foreign agents” and allows security thugs to beat up protesters with impunity.

In would appear that, in Morsi’s case, the Egyptian people have a sense that their own President, like other democratators before him, is looking to disembark from the pluralist train at some point in the near future.

Media outlets are highlighting Morsi’s economic mismanagement as the key factor for those taking to the streets in recent days in protest against his rule. And no doubt this is an important factor heightening people’s anger.

But it’s not the only factor.

The tendency in the West to accept the inky thumb print as the only indicator of a thriving democracy is blinding many commentators to the anti-democratic (and just as importantly, counter revolutionary) push which has been taking place under Morsi.

Morsi granted himself sweeping powers in November last year, declaring that until a new constitution was decreed all presidential decisions would be immune from legal challenge.

In its first year in power the Islamist government has also been gearing up for an attack on the rights of Egyptian women (it’s hard to call yourself a democrat while seeking to downgrade the freedoms of half the population).

A new constitution was drafted which lacked a clear statement on women’s rights, the unveiled feminist hero Doriya Shafiq was removed from school textbooks, and the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was rejected by the government (it’s reply is incredibly reactionary).

The ruling Freedom and Justice Party’s list of “subversive immoralities” includes giving wives legal rights to report their husbands for sexual abuse and granting women the right to use contraceptives.

If there’s any lesson for Western observers from the uprising in Egypt and subsequent military coup it should be, to paraphrase something Barack Obama recently said, not to confuse democracy with the mere holding of elections.

9 Responses to “Egypt: Don’t confuse democracy with the mere holding of elections”

  1. RFR

    This piece has been quite poorly researched. Chavez refused to renew the terrestrial broadcast licence of one TV station. This is not a ‘good’ thing for him to have done, and I oppose him for it, but it’s not the same as ‘shutting down’ ‘all but one’. He didn’t ‘shut down’ any – and there is certainly more than one non-state broadcaster operating in Venezuela.

    Similarly, your point about Morsi, that he ‘ granted himself sweeping powers in November last year, declaring that until a new constitution was decreed all presidential decisions would be immune from legal challenge.’ is at best disingenuous. He announced the powers and then withdrew them within days of public protest.

    That’s not to say he’s a good guy, or a man we should all support, but he was removed by the armed forces. If we should not treat the ballot box as the be-all and end-all of democracy (and I agree we should not) we should certainly not regard the removal of an elected president by the armed forces as anything similar. It is the opposite.

  2. leftfootfwd

    No where does the piece state that the best response to Mohamed Morsi’s anti-democratic tendencies is a military coup. The situation, from the perspective of democracy, is fairly dire all round.

    As for Chavez – if you take away a station’s license to broadcast you are effectively closing it down. The last remaining opposition television channel, Globovision, recently dissapeared too: http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/03/13/adios-globovision-venezuelas-last-opposition-tv-station/?#axzz2Y4JeDETz

  3. OldLb

    it’s hard to call yourself a democrat while seeking to downgrade the freedoms of half the population

    ===============

    Like Labour and its attacks on sections of society.

    Until Labour stops its tribalism and class warfare, its going to have problems. So far I do not see class warfare from the Tories or the Lib Dems.

    Labour’s worse nightmare will come if the opposition decide to play the class warfare game.

  4. Vaughan Harris

    I stopped confusing or conflating democracy with the mere holding of an election a long time ago. All we have in the Divided Kingdom is elected dictatorship, or ‘liberal’ totalitarianism, with the main parties being nothing but three heads of the same monster. As I live in England, I am treated even worse than my ‘fellow’ citizens living in the DK’s other nations, even though I pay the same taxes and hold the same citizenship. No, as far as I’m concerned, democracy is merely a word that politicians use to con us. It’s a good idea, though, but the ruling classes will never allow us any of it.

  5. NT86

    Whoever didn’t see through Morsi earlier on must be blinkered. IMO there is no real democracy if it is based on backward sectarianism. The Muslim Brotherhood represents political Islam, which is completely counter to any form of democracy. Even if there was a democratic mandate, their views run counter to the interests of groups like women, gay people, Coptic Christians, other non-Muslims, Atheists or ex-Muslims. And worse than them is the even more hardline salafists.

  6. Ben West

    Liberalism, secularism and democracy are three separate things, too easily conflated. As the election of Morsi demonstrated, the majority opinion of the Egyptian electorate is not necessarily liberal or secular. That’s why many secularists and liberals have now resorted to anti-democratic means.

    The question at stake in Egypt then is whether electoral democracy helps to bring about a secular, liberal society, or whether a society must first be secular and liberal before it can be democratic.

  7. Matthew Blott

    Excellent post. I see the Grauniad is very upset about Morsi’s ousting and says it is only the Muslim Brotherhood who are for democracy in Egypt. Liberal Egyptians are opposed according to its leader today.

  8. Chrisso

    LFF – [re Chavez] – “if you take away a station’s license to broadcast you are effectively closing it down.” In the Bloodworth apologia for the Egyptian armed forces coup, no mention is made that the military have closed down the media stations that support the Muslim Brotherhood. Also loved the idea that the elected majority party (that won 62% support for the constitution) can later be legitimately disregarded and the constitution can be suspended simply because its policies don’t suit. Crowd sourcing or ‘grandstanding direct democracy’ simply does not cut it in terms of legitimacy. So disappointed that this piece reframes democracy through the ballot box, simply because the majority elected party has some undeniably unpleasant policies.

  9. richardhering

    You haven’t admitted the errors you made re: Venezuela pointed out by RFR, but merely compounded them. RCV’s terrestrial licence only was not renewed, five years after that broadcaster participated in an attempted coup d’etat. Imagine what the response might be if, say, ITV did that in the UK. Far from being closed down, RCV continues to broadcast on cable and satellite. Globovision’s decision to become more balanced in its coverage should be applauded, and was motivated by commercial considerations in a country where more than half the population support the revolution. And as RFR points out, they are not the only private networks in Venezuela. If you mean the kind of channel which used to show montages of the democratically elected President supposedly doing Nazi salutes, then yes, that has (hopefully) passed. Why do you, an avowedly left-wing site, regret that? Very bizarre, arrogant, and frankly imperialist.

Leave a Reply