“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Not my words. Reportedly, Winston Churchill said that. Not that I’m a fan. In fact, I despise Churchill. Still, some of history’s best orators are evil men. That doesn’t make their talents any less magnificent. But I digress. Before I talk briefly about democracy in Egypt I must first talk about democracy as a concept at some length.
Speaking as an Egyptian, I’ve watched (well, listened to) western rhetoric since childhood, led by the US government, push democracy like a religion. Repeating it in all the positive contexts relentlessly, along with words like freedom, justice, equality and free speech. It got to a point where publicly disagreeing with democracy negatively affected your political legitimacy the world over, whether you’re a half-assed politician running for city council, a head of state or even just a commentator. As a result, even governments on my side of the world paid lip service to the concept. We all know they don’t really believe in it.
But democracy is not synonymous with freedom, justice, equality, or even freedom of speech. Democracy is touted as the best way to achieve these things by every major mouthpiece for the western establishment. That’s an important distinction to make, and I’m making it right now. Mind you, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that idea at this point. I’m drawing a line in the sand. Democracy does not stand for all that is good, or even reasonable in the world. Democracy has a very clear definition. People’s rule.
Now IS democracy the best way to achieve all that is good in society? The truth is I don’t know. But I know that if it is, it hasn’t proven to be best by much. The real argument against democracy is that it’s a relatively modern concept in the way it’s applied today. You can invoke imperfect ancient Greek examples of it, or more elitist Roman ones, but that really harms the concept rather than supports it. Aside from these ancient examples’ failings, those societies fell apart. If ancient democracy was a force of constant, sufficient, unfailing improvement in those societies, they would not have crumbled. I could go on to explain that the democracy western countries think they have right now isn’t really democracy but that’s another subject for another time.
To talk again of more modern times, yes, all other governance systems have proven catastrophic in their own ways as well, as far as systems go. In that a system should establish, maintain and grow its participants’ general well being. But democracy is not yet at a point where it can point fingers. All the relative well-being in supposedly democratic societies can arguably be attributed to the availability and distribution of wealth. Colonisation, theft of resources, and exploitation made possible by large scale armed conflict have enacted more change in wealth availability and distribution than modern democracy ever has. Democracy is certainly not at a point where nations considering themselves democratic have any moral basis for the pressures, sanctions, or even military interventions they enact on other nations they consider not democratic enough. So, having agreed not to put democracy on a pedestal, let’s talk about Egypt, democracy and the Arab spring.
The Arab spring was widely considered a democratic movement amongst the non-Arab international community (specifically Western governments, but also international media and the people paying attention to it), a sweeping force of positive change across the region. Now, 7–9 years later, what did it really achieve? Egypt, led by Mubarak’s canny Minister of Finance, Youssef Boutrous Ghaly, had been achieving sustained and elevated economic growth, steadily and consistently for years. Even the 2008 economic bubble burst didn’t affect us. While many major economies fell back in the aftermath, Egypt’s economy merely grew a little slower that year. The Arab spring hit the Egyptian economy hard. So hard that even now, with recovering investments and significant austerity measures, the country is merely attempting to achieve it’s pre-revolution economy, before even thinking about exceeding it.
Democracy was not achieved. Certainly, the will of the people has been manipulated to achieve a number of political objectives by various factions and their allied domestic and foreign interests, but proper self-rule as a system, with regards to candidates, offices and transparency, has definitely not been instituted. Freedom of speech (pushed by American media and the American political machine as almost synonymous with democracy) today is arguably worse than it was in the Mubarak era. Mubarak’s government had a habit of letting people (mostly) say what they want and ignoring it. Mubarak was criticized all the time. Criticizing Sisi now is reportedly, if the pro-revolution camp is to be believed, much more dangerous than it was to criticize Mubarak back in the day.
Public safety became, for years after and until very recently, a thing of the past. It’s still not “quite” what it was before. Health care didn’t improve from pre-revolution levels. Quality of life didn’t improve from pre-revolution levels. The rich got slightly less rich, the upper middle class took some major hits and the poor just got poorer. Economically, it was a lose-lose situation. Political and religious freedoms were not achieved, free speech was not achieved, and national debts became insane.
Forget Egypt for a second. What did the Arab Spring do to Syria? I think we all know the answer to that. What about Libya? Libya is a particular pet peeve of mine, because I knew from day one that NATO interference would cause a collapse of central authority and factional wars and infighting and a division of the Libyan state. Now frame that how you will. Either I am so far above average in my abilities that I am more intelligent, educated and politically astute than all of NATO’s strategists, politicians, think tanks, decision makers, generals and heads of state, in which case pay me 20 million Euros to design some curricula for courses in common sense for your people, or what happened to Libya was very much what NATO expected and was orchestrated deliberately.
If you’re willing to accept that the Arab Spring was representative of the will of the people, which many western commentators are, then there’s no escape from also accepting that the will of the people kinda came back to bite them on the ass. And then kick them below the belt and just stomp on them a little for a few years. If you’re more like me, and you think that a number of international interests exploited the faults, weaknesses and shortcomings of the Arab governments to manipulate less than the majority of the countries affected to cause some uproar, you probably also accept that some of the major agitators in this game are the governments of countries that like to push themselves as democracies. Irony aside, it doesn’t say much for democracy as a concept.
Ultimately, what passes for democratic progress in mainstream opinion has been very bad for Egypt. It neither achieved the ideals that the mainstream west links with democracy, nor did it achieve democracy itself, nor did it even leave things as they are. It made things worse from almost every aspect of the country. Of course, Egypt has been luckier than some other countries in the region but still…The Arab spring didn’t do us anymore favours than it did them. Maybe Tunis came out of this better. At least some people can argue that. For the rest of us…For Egypt…Democracy kinda sucked.
So there it is. Moral is, just because America says democracy is good, doesn’t mean you should believe it.