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.

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.

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