“Egypt’s Elections” By Richard Sale

Islam is on the march in the Middle East. This is indisputable. For the past few years, in every Mideast election, the Islamic parties have won: in the Gaza Strip in 2006, in Iraq and Tunisia in 2010. In 2011, they won again in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt where, the first parliamentary elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Islamist parties have confirmed an overwhelming victory.

     The new preponderance of Islamic political power in the region poses serious and genuine threats to U.S. interests. A former veteran U.S. intelligence source who lived in Cairo for years, told me that America’s main worry had centered on the possibility that Egypt at some point would experience an Islamic landslide in which the Islamics secured a majority and who would then gradually leveraged its legislative authority to divest the military of its traditional power and outlaw political opponents. If that occurred, he feared that Egypt could start linking up with similar groups in Tunisia, Syrian, Libya and Yemen which would be catastrophic.

    When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, its efforts were directed to controlling Egypt by outlawing its opposition and imposing a very strict version of Islam on what basically a secular country. This they did until they were booted from power by the Egyptian military who, in turn, outlawed the Brotherhood. It was an example of circular despotism, but at least the military was secular.  Just recently, Egypt’s military scored a significant victory in the latest election aimed at setting up a new constitution, and the attempts by American pundits who claim that the triumph of strongman General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was due to manipulations, intimidations, and bullying ignore the popular popularity of the military among the Egyptian mass.  It is true that the election results were deeply skewed by the fact many of the Salafist parties abstained from it, mainly on the grounds that democracy – government by men — is a blasphemy in Islam where men are supposed to be governed only by God.

    As expected, there appears to a certain amount of dismay among America’s media pundits about the new election. The majority of them regard the result as shockingly undemocratic.  But when it comes to a country like Egypt, it is an unfortunate truth that the methods used by a dictator to administer his power may last long after the dictator himself has fallen. There were millions of supporters for General el-Sisi and his victory ended political instability, a deteriorating economy and growing political unrest. It seems to me a piece of idiocy to think that Egypt’s military will soon withdraw from politics.

    The question must then be asked, with no tradition of democracy or constitutional government, what shape is Egypt’s future likely to take?  Two years ago, the discontent of Egypt’s idealist rebels, its liberals, its students, and leftists in Tahir Square burst forth like a flood unleashed by a thundercloud. Their courage, their steadfastness, and their unfaltering will, rightly thrilled the world.  But protesting wrongs is not equivalent to governing a country equitably.

    The protests of the leftists, the idealistic youth, and the liberals Egypt’s liberal idealists were certain that they were Egypt’s future, but is that realistic?  Clearly in my opinion, they are not. Participation in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and so forth, may chatter away about “change,” but too often popular idealism is the prisoner of the moment, and can hardly be a basis for governing. Leaderless and loosely organized, the liberal revolt’s weak showing in the early Egyptian elections was due to its participants’ lack of ability to competently organize, to create a governing coalition, or to lay any sound foundations of a new political order. The liberal hope is unrealistic because the character of past Egyptian governments has been authoritarian for so many recent years., and also because the power of the military has been much greater than competent political power in that country.

     It should be remembered that the forms, the habits and means of government over the long term have to reflect the understandings and expectations of its people. The Egyptians have never known democracy as we, Americans, understand it. They have experienced next to nothing of the centuries long development of self disciplined domestic management of political affairs out of which our own culture has evolved. If you presented them today with our system, they would not know what to do with it or how to operate it with any success. The American experiment in democracy was and remains an experiment, not the example of a predetermined political destiny.

     We Americans forget that American democracy was very slow in coming, aided by the fact that in Virginia and other key areas, Americans were free to assemble at town meetings, to draw up and debate bills, and successfully undertook those parliamentary procedures that in time bore excellent fruit. For example, in the young colonial societies where the majority of people belonged to freehold farming families, the class lines were so fluid that former indentures servants could and did rise to membership in legislative assemblies where radical ideas respecting life ad labor differing form those in England, gained in force.

     In any case, democracy is a very loose term, and all sorts of mistaken foibles and temporary infatuation have masqueraded under it. As Americans we should be careful to judge right from wrong because our own criteria are too faulty and subjective. The real interests of Egypt have to deal with national security, political integrity, and economic prosperity, the task being to deliver to Egypt’s people higher standard of living, gender equality and the protection of minorities, and one has to hope that the military will make those goals good for them..


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16 Responses to “Egypt’s Elections” By Richard Sale

  1. Patrick D says:

    “If that occurred, he feared that Egypt could start linking up with similar groups in Tunisia, Syrian, Libya and Yemen which would be catastrophic.”
    To anyone with the relevant knowledge,
    Putting aside the details of how this would be catastrophic to the actual, vital national interests of the United States, if secular Arab nationalists of various stripes could not pull off the United Arab Republic is there reason to believe diverse groups of Islamists could?
    Even if something like the UAR is too high a bar for the meaning of “linking up”, wouldn’t some degree of success at Islamist coordination/unification represent another “tip of the kaleidoscope” resulting in the somewhat neutralizing alignment of regional interests opposing it?

  2. So is there a common vision driving the Islamists?

  3. Do worshipers of Islam have a fundamental tenet in their beliefs of ETHNIC CLEANSING?

  4. turcopolier says:

    You keep asking the same questions. This is a bit like Catholics “shopping” for a priest who will give them the answers that they want. Islam is a universalist religion. It seeks brotherhood among humans within the Islamic community. Islam is not an ethnicity. What do Islamists want? They seek salvation through obedience to what they see as God’s will. There is a lot of variation among the as to what they think is God’s will. pl

  5. Alba Etie says:

    Col Lang
    It might be worth noting that Erdogan is in trouble in Turkey and may not get re -elected . It also might be worth noting that perhaps there is an opening in the Iranian /West relationship that might counter balance some of the worst tendencies of the Salafist such as al Nusra.

  6. Alba Etie says:

    correction worth noting ..

  7. walter says:

    It is so amazing to me to hear so many of you champions of liberty and democracy favor denying citizens of the Middle East democracy and liberty to choose their own leaders. Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood to power, but according to Richard Sale, Egypt is a secular country and support their military. You guys favor overturning, by force, the popular will of the people for the purposes of suporting vital American interests.
    Do you know how that sounds to people outside of the America first bubble? “Democracy for USA, but not for anyone else.” “If you don’t do things our way, we will forcibly, immorally kill you and install our own pro-USA people.”
    Why do u not have faith in people? in democracy? In the free will of people to choose their own leaders?
    Im sure I will be chastized by you PL for being unpatriotic or a Marxist. But what I am is someone who has consistent moral values, not skewed only towards people of America, but for all people on planet Earth.

  8. turcopolier says:

    If you favor medieval theocatic tyranny then your position makes sense to me. pl

  9. optimax says:

    Democracy can not survive the election of an authoritarian party to power. The authoritarians will chip away at the democratic institutions until there is nothing left to block their dismantling the remnants of all civil rights. This is what Morsi started to do before his overthrow and what Hitler succeeded in doing. Egypt can only return to the path that leads to a secular democracy by outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Germany has outlawed the Nazi Party.

  10. confusedponderer says:

    it may sound cynical, but the Egyptian generals and the people who support them have, in ousting the MB, exercised their liberty to choose their own leaders, in face of an elected government that would have imposed policy anathema to the urban Egyptians. The military couldn’t have pulled off the ouster of Musri without some substantial popular backing.
    When Syrians support, as many do, Assad and oppose the Muslim Brothers and Jihadis in the Syria, they do this in spite of Assad’s illiberalism and because of his tolerance in all things religion but Sunni exclusivism. Assad couldn’t have held out so long without some substantial popular backing across religious factions in Syria, incling loyal Sunnis, Christians, Druze, Shia, Alawites. The opposition is not nearly as diverse.
    Maybe that bit of tolerance is worth more than just having a poll that will allow the majority to lord it over the rest, and even outweighs the illiberalism?
    Democracy in form of majpority rule as determined by a poll is no cure all, and it doesn’t work everywhere.
    What the Swiss have probably won’t work in any place much bigger than that country. Some other countries have republics. Speaking of which, the American model probably sort of works for America, but as far as I am concerned, I am quite happy we don’t have it here, for I am acutely aware of its flaws in cnteporary practice. Some other places are better off with monarchies. Others prefer constitutional monarchies. The Brits like that. Israel prefers to be an ethnocracy. And so on.
    Here’s a serious problem: What to do if a democratic election votes into power an illoyal majority, which has decided to impose itself on the minority and is intent on perpetuating itself?
    What’s your idea of how to tackle such a problem: Get out in the street singing cumbaya? Have feminists bare their breats and shriek at Mursi that he is a mysogynist and that he, pleace, will respect woman rights and spare ethem the veil? Inspite of the fact that Mursi’s religious views forbid him that?
    Maybe a coup is a practical solution for an otherwise intractable problem in places where loyal majorities and oppositions are sorely lacking? The largish number of Egyptians that suppot the Generals have for themselves decided that this is so.
    As Mr. Lang put it: Mursi’s, Erdogan’s and probably any other democratic Islamist-in-a-business-suit’s idea of elections is ‘one man, one vote, one time’.
    In Iraq the majority has imposed itself on the minorities, and the result is strife.
    What’s your holy cow? Having a poll and stick to it, and everybody lived happily everafter? Or do you want individual freedoms and liberties?
    The two can me mutually exclusive, and as Iraq shows, having had that poll, a purple fingered one even*, didn’t help them a lot, much less did it protect individual freedoms and liberties if you’re Sunni.
    Praying to the God of democracy is not coing to get you out of the conundrum that illoyal majorities pose.
    * o/t on purple fingers: I once met a devoted Republican who went on to fulminate on the perils of voter fraud, that damnable group ACORN, and the dire, dire need for voter ID laws so that people only vote once. I suggested that the US, to be super safe, and since it worked so well in Iraq, could just purple finger the US electorate and spare themselves the costs of implementing such laws. He was appaled – purple fingering was for savages.

  11. AEL says:

    98% is pretty overwhelming.
    The best Hosni Mubarak ever got was 97%.

  12. elkern says:

    Democracy as we (here in the USA) know it is predicated on being a Republic first. It (usually) requires an overwhelming majority to change the meta-rules – the Constitution – so big changes can happen, but not until almost everybody is on board. Those founders were pretty smart, eh?
    By most measures, I’m probably at least as “liberal” as Walter (above), but I’m obviously more sanguine about Democracy. Recent history (100 yrs?) offers many success stories and many abject failures. I’d count most of Europe & South America, plus some Asian countries in the plus column. AFrica, not so much, perhaps excepting S.Africa. Middle Eastern “democracies” all have problems, often rather different ones.
    Israel is wildly democratic, but lacks protections for non-Jews. Turkey is decent example of a military dictatorship evolving into a democracy (unfortunately, that’s been somewhat cyclical). Lebanon seems relatively successful, given the cards they’ve been dealt (location, sectarian divisions), but that “success” may just be the failure of all the strong-men who have tried to take over. I think Iran counts as the next oldest Democracy in the region, even though it also counts as a Theocracy.
    It sounds like Tunisia has a chance to crawl into the win column, but the jury is still out. On the other hand, there’s Libya.
    If we (USA) had made a priority out of encouraging democracy in Egypt, they might have been ready for it by now (yes, that’s condescending). But instead, our foreign policy in the region has been – until recently – skewed toward only two things: supporting Israel, and keeping the oil flowing.

  13. Herb says:

    Maybe you should ask ethnic Tutsi how they felt about majority rule coming to Rwanda?
    Without real protections for the minority (and a commitment to abide to them), “democracy” is just tyranny with a different name. The Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk have shown zero interest in respecting the rights or interests of nearly half of the population when they have come to power.

  14. confusedponderer says:

    “have shown zero interest in respecting the rights or interests of nearly half of the population”
    They do that because they think anything else is inconsistent with the demands of their creed. Who are they to disobey the command of Him?
    That is to say, they don’t intend to ‘disrespect’ women for instance when they want them to wear the veil. They see it as protecting their dignity and doing them a favour. The result for the more unwilling subjects of their attention is of course the same.
    It’s like the thing with the courtesy of helping a little old lady over he street. By itself a laudable thing.
    Imagine, our particular little lady doesn’t want to get there and is in fact loudly protesting the help, and starts beating her helper with her handbag.
    Her helper proceeds undeterred, since to him her protesting doesn’t matter. After all, every reasonable person would want to be at the other side of the street, thus the protesting is at best misguided and at worst purely spiteful – and can be ignored either way. If it is the former she will be grateful later and if it is the latter – she clearly needs to be punished for her spitefulness. What a thankless job …
    Thus are the blessings of having seen the light.
    It is that attitude that with state power becomes a potent and dangerous thing.

  15. elkern says:

    Juan Cole has an optimistic piece about Tunisia, contrasting it with the mess in Egypt:

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