Reminder in Egypt: Democracies Are Only as Good as Their Institutions

Elected leaders aren't always interested in transforming their countries' politics -- and they can't always do it when they try.


As mass social demonstrations, and the military, have toppled Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and called for new elections, it's worth remembering why transitions to democracy never begin and end with the man on top. Countries that sweep new governments in through revolutions often face a common problem: While the leadership can be replaced, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the Arab Spring rebellions, anti-democratic, sometimes corrupt, institutions often outlast the autocrats that helped create them.

One big reason for this is that new democracies almost inevitably inherit many of the old regime's civil servants and politicians; and even first-time politicians installed through democratic elections may see their new access to the levers of power as an opportunity to take their share, rather than as a chance to support democratic consolidation. Across many African countries, for instance, a similar phrase is used to describe this kind of politics: In Kenya, it's called "our turn to eat," while in Cameroon it's "the politics of the belly." The pervasiveness of this sort of mindset means that, when institutions are toxic, even when opposition groups finally get in power, they often fall into similar patterns of behavior to those of the people they ousted.

Which is a pattern confirmed even by very recent history:

The Democracy ReportMany international observers praised Kenya's elections in March of this year as heralding a fresh start for the country and the end of strongman Mwai Kibaki's 10-year stint in power, a period marred by corruption allegations and brutal violence in the wake of the disputed 2007 elections. But it was only in 2002 that Kibaki's electoral victory was hailed as the arrival of democracy, sweeping out of power long-time dictator Daniel arap Moi. It still remains to be seen if the country's new leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, will deliver meaningful change. It is worth bearing in mind that Uhuru is the son of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, who constructed a one-party system, and he contested the election against the son of Oginga Odinga, Jomo's erstwhile ally, and later on, most formidable rival. Both Uhuru and his vice president have been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of inciting violence in the aftermath of the 2007 elections.

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.

All of these countries have their own political idiosyncrasies, of course, and all have different records of democratic performance; but they all, just the same, illustrate that that the transition from democratic elections to democratic institutions is in some ways as tough a proposition today as it's ever been. We can hope that Egypt's next leader will prove fairer and more open than Morsi, but a real transition to democracy will take much more than that.