Egypt and the Process of Democracy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I've been meaning to spotlight a very perceptive comment from last week on Egypt. Now seems to be the right time. First today's events--40 or more people shot down in Cairo. The Times reports:

Bullet holes in cars, lampposts and corrugated metal barriers indicated that gunfire was coming from the top of a nearby building where the sandbag barriers around makeshift gun turrets were visible. Bullet casings on the ground and collected by Islamist demonstrators bore the label of the Egyptian Army.

There were pools of blood on the pavement. Some of the blood and bullet holes were hundreds of yards from the walls of the facility's guard house, suggesting that the soldiers continued firing as the demonstrators fled.

Ibrahim el-Sheikh, a neighbor, said the police officer, Mohamed el-Mesairy, was killed by military fire. He was hiding in his car in the parking lot of a building in a side street that the Morsi supporters were using for shelter. Mr. Sheikh, who signed a petition and joined protests for Mr. Morsi's ouster, said he and others carried the officer's body out of his car. "He did not have a head any more," he said.

The Nasr City hospital, a few minutes drive from the scene of the shooting, began receiving hundreds of victims around 4 a.m. and at least 40 were dead, according to Bassem al-Sayed, a surgeon. The doctor said all the victims he saw were men with gunshot wounds.

The emergency wards and the intensive care unit were full of patients and distraught relatives. Near the emergency room, two dozen men lined up to donate blood.

Dr. Sayed said he had seen similar scenes in the hospital only once: around January 25, 2011, when Egyptians began their revolt against President Hosni Mubarak.

"This is worse," he said

An Egyptian journalists was kind enough to weigh in last week, with some on the ground information and some unfortunate foreshadowing. Here is an excerpt:

In the link that Ta-Nehisi provided above, Mona Eltahawy touched on this when she said that "Islam is the solution" does not fill gas tanks or get someone a job. But being anti-Islamist or "revolutionary" doesn't do that either. In all my time here, I haven't really heard Morsi's opposition articulate any real policy platform aside from being anti-Brotherhood. And as for military rule, keep in mind that while power cuts, gasoline shortages, dwindling foreign currency reserves and crime are pretty recent issues, the more entrenched problems -- torture, religious discrimination, gender-based violence, unemployment, government repression of civil society, environmental degradation, the complete atrophy of education, health and transportation infrastructure -- go back decades, when the country was firmly under military/authoritarian rule.

Morsi's fall doesn't guarantee any of these problems will be addressed. But it does raise the specter of a population divided into mutually hostile factions based on one's political allegiance, while any semblance of a functioning state and civil society crumbles around them. Some of the Islamists (I'm thinking the Nour Party here) are no doubt not that sorry to see Morsi fall, but his rank-and-file Brotherhood supporters are convinced that he has legitimacy, and some of the more militant groups, such as Gama'a al-Islamiya have been threatening violence against Islamist opponents long before the current crisis.

For now it's the military doing the violence, with horrific results.

Here's a piece from Kyle Thetford on the variable fate of new democracies:

Democratic optimists have also commended Zambia for its commitment to democracy, where regular elections have been held since 1991, but until 2011, the same party had held power, and allegations of endemic corruption continued. Despite the reformist platform of the country's first democratically elected president, Frederick Chiluba, by the end of his tenure he sought to manipulate the constitution to perpetuate his rule. Though he failed in his effort, the attempt illustrates the dangers of democratic backsliding once the initial euphoria has dissipated.

The 2010 election victory of the Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara was also held up as a victory of democracy over autocracy, but the actual transfer of power involved French military intervention to override the ruling of a blatantly biased Constitutional Council, which pronounced victory for the incumbent strongman, Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara was formerly a key member in the government of the country's first authoritarian ruler, and the autocratic Gbagbo began his political career as an exiled dissident advocating for multi-party politics.

Constitutions are also vulnerable, a fact exhibited by the late Hugo Chavez. Venezuela's legislature was outmaneuvered, and then neutered. A constitution is an impediment to the ambitions of an aspiring dictator, but by no means an insurmountable one. Similarly creative methods of circumventing term limitations have been employed effectively by Putin in Russia.

The Democracy Report One could push this analysis back even further. At what point did the United States actually become a democracy? How long did the democratizing of Western Europe take? What happened in between the moment of declaration of democratic ideals and the actual fulfillment of those ideals?

I'd also add that democratization is more of a process than an end game. In this country, right now, there are people who are firmly in the tradition of poll taxing, and other anti-democratic tricks.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/egypt-and-the-process-of-democracy/277573/