May 22nd, 2012
07:49 AM ET

The real obstacle to democracy in Egypt

By Fareed Zakaria

If you look at Egypt moving forward, there's a great deal of emphasis placed on the various political parties and what they may stand for and what they're going to do. But we have to remember: The real obstacle to democracy in Egypt continues to be the people who run Egypt — a military dictatorship.

The military is still in power and they still dominate the economy — there are some estimates that they control between 10 and maybe even 30% of the economy. No one knows because it's all secret. But the point is unless the Egyptian military is genuinely willing to cede power, it doesn't really matter that much who wins the presidential election this week.

If you look at the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the way in which it has controlled the press (punishing people who write exposés, for example) it's a very disturbing sign. And it shows you how important it will be not just to have elections in Egypt, but to have the other parts of a liberal democracy: the guarantees and rights of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association. Let's not forget — these are the inner stuffings of democracy.

The most important aspect of Egyptian democracy-building will not be the elections. It will be the writing of the constitution and making sure there are guarantees for women, for minorities, for free speech and for free assembly.

For now, political Islam has an enormous hold over the populace. The reason you didn't see that for the last few decades was because Egypt was a military dictatorship and it didn't really matter what the people of Egypt felt.

But over time, I think that religiosity will be moderated, as it has in almost every Muslim country that has turned to democracy. Because given time, people realize: they really want good government, they want jobs, they want economic welfare, and the mullahs aren't always able to deliver those things. It doesn't matter so much what you preach about in abstract matters, what matters is governance.

Democracy in Egypt would be an earthquake in the Arab world — if it succeeds. And the reason is that Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world. Egypt is the place from which all culture emanates in the Arab world: the songs and music, the TV shows, the language in many ways.

Egypt is the birthplace of the two biggest political ideas of the modern Arab world. The first being Arab nationalism or Pan-Arabism, the idea of politically unifying Arab countries; and the second being Islamic fundamentalism and this whole idea of political Islam which came from the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb. These were Egyptian ideas which then spread throughout the Arab and then the Islamic world.

So if the next big idea to spring out of Egypt is a working Muslim democratic system, that would be seismic.

Does the idealism from the height of the revolution still exist? What will be the greatest challenge for Egypt's new president? Watch the video for more on the Egypt presidential election.

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Topics: Egypt • Elections

soundoff (236 Responses)
  1. me138

    Name one country that is a Democracy.

    May 23, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
  2. EdL

    If democracy is established, Egypt will become an Islamic state. Then the fun begins. Democracy being fine for us, we have been trying to convert the rest of the world to be as we. In several Arab counries Bin Laden would have won free election by a landslide.. And free elections gave us Obama. Where is the answer?

    May 23, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
    • me138

      The United States is not a Democracy.

      May 23, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
      • EdL


        May 23, 2012 at 11:22 am |
      • me138

        You implied in your comment that we are a democracy.

        May 23, 2012 at 11:24 am |
      • Jonathan Hall

        is too

        May 23, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  3. Amr Azim

    For the first time, Fareed Zakaria is 100% wrong. Egypt cannot survive without its Army strong. Egypt is the only country in the World, that will NOT be invaded by a Foreign country – because of its strong Army. Imagine, if the US stops helping Israel? Israel will not stand a chance against. Israel!

    May 23, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  4. Leo

    To Egyptians and to most of the Muslim world, their lives are ruled first and foremost by the koran, whose democratic values are non-existent, at best.

    May 23, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • Henry Baxley

      Well at least they have something going for them.

      May 23, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  5. Leo

    Koran and democracy CANNOT co-exist, period.

    May 23, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • me138

      Freedom and Democracy cannot coexist.

      May 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  6. Jon

    /* But over time, I think that religiosity will be moderated, as it has in almost every Muslim country that has turned to democracy. Because given time, people realize: they really want good government, they want jobs, they want economic welfare, and the mullahs aren't always able to deliver those things. */

    Bingo. My thoughts exactly. The big question is: can Egypt make it out of this transition period with enough freedom to give people the ability to recognize when the system isn't working?

    May 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
    • me138

      I cant think of one country in the world that is a democracy can you?

      May 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
      • Jonathan Hall

        France, the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Iraq, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Turkey, .......the list is a large one.

        May 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
      • me138

        The United States is NOT e Democracy, neither are the other ones.

        May 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  7. richard

    Hey idiots, the West (nor anywhere else) doesn't have a single functioning 'democracy' but we do live in many 'Republics'. The difference between the two forms of government are as vast as those between Communism & Theocracies.
    Democracies exist at the whim of the masses, Republics exist by the rules of their laws, many of which cannot be changed. (i.e.- USA Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence assertion that 'certain inalienable rights which are given by their Creator")

    May 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Henry Baxley

      Republic is rule of law....democracy is mob rule. The Martin-Zimmerman affair proves we live in a Democracy masqurading as a republic.

      May 23, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
      • me138

        You have a point unfortunately. Democracy is a sure way to an Oligarchy.

        May 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  8. me138

    Democracy is a myth.

    May 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  9. John Stefanyszyn

    Egypt / first free election / embrace the image of the beast.


    "Egyptians are voting in their first free presidential election, 15 months after ousting Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring uprising."
    ref.: BBC News – Egyptians vote in landmark presidential election

    Their old way, their previous way, of life has died and now they embrace another way of life, which they never did before.

    They protested for, fought for, died for, and overturned their ruler for the belief in freedom of rights, freedom of religion, equality of rights....the way of the leader of the free world.

    They now live by the way of the beast and have received its mark on their forehead.

    Daniel wrote of this...Daniel 11: 42-43...
    "...He (the last king of the north) shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape (survive the pressure).
    His power (his way of life/ his belief/ his god of fortresses) will be over what was previously precious to the Egyptians, also the Libyans (nations of north Africa) and Ethiopians (nations of the land of Cush) shall follow him (his way of life) at his heels."

    And soon , the glorified way of "freedom" and "equality of rights" will be declared as the "one true and good way of life" for all mankind....this belief will be placed between all nations and above the Holy Mountain of the One True Creator God and His Son The Christ...

    ...denying their Preeminence.

    May 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  10. Din

    Ignore all the right wing fascist islamophobes who frequent these forums saying democracy in egypt wont work,

    Democracy (though not clearly defined as to what it is) can work in Egypt, and will work if the Army lets the elected government take control.

    Racist pigs think that democracy is only when you vote for what they think is "right and proper".

    May 23, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • me138

      Democracy is Mob rule, why would anyone be in favor of that? The United States is NOT a democracy nor have we ever been a democracy why would we want that for someone else? can you name any country that currently has a democracy? No because there is none.

      May 23, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  11. TDiddy

    fareed is a pig and all muslims are pigs. kill them all

    May 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • hindunegative

      wish of a hindu, pig from hindered gutter artificial country called india in his hindu filthy soul, desire, never to be fulfilled till elimination of their hinduism criminality and hindu's, criminals.

      May 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  12. obama's poodle frothing at the mouth again?

    oh yes, and iran will be honest and give up its drive for nuclear weapons too.

    uh huh...suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuure......

    do you really think the average person is that stupid fareed?

    May 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  13. Dave NY USA

    Do you REALLY think that it was a good idea, or sent a good message when our Idiot-in-Chief invited the phuqing Muslim Brotherhood to the WHITE HOUSE???!!!

    May 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  14. Brhino

    Good luck. Seriously.

    May 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  15. t3chn0ph0b3

    Egypt may be the heart and soul, but Saudi Arabia is the wallet. Where the Saudis go, so does every Muslim nation.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  16. Barry G.

    If Egypt votes for an extremist, or an ultra-conservative fanatic, won't this put them back to square one?

    If they vote for someone who is opposed to women's rights, to educating females, or a theocracy, won't this defeat their hopes of freedom?

    May 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  17. Meyer C. Dhoates

    The real obsticle to democracy in Egypt is Islam.

    May 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  18. Robert

    I'll beleive Egypt is democratic when a man can publicly convert from Islam to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Wicca, Athieism, or any other religion he chooses without fear of death, imprisonment, or vigilante violence. Until that happens, "freedom" and "democracy" will be nothing more than window-dressing on whatever pathetic regime is calling the shots.

    May 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  19. Nabil

    I think Fareed Zakaria should get his facts straight, you cannot achieve a democracy with an Islamic government, Islam is a form of dictatorship, my prayers are for Egyptians to elect a liberal civilian leader and save Egypt. there is no moderate Islamic fundamentalist, he does not exist.

    May 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  20. Mahamad

    with great respect to Mr. Fareed Zakaria which I assume he is a Muslim I could not continue reading the rest of his article as soon as he started blaming the army for being so opposing to democracy, I see his support to bring the muslims brotherhood into power to take the Middle-East back to the 4th Century. I would like to educated you a little bit, for your knowledge 90% of the Educated and Intelectual Muslims in Egypt who represent 15% of the population do not support the muslims brotherhod or the Sharia Law that is why they are voting one of the army to the Presidency in Egypt if you read arabic please go to and read the comments of the Egyptian people. Cheers

    May 23, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  21. Descarado

    The real obstacle to Egypt's democracy is Islam.

    One can never, ever reconcile Islam with women's rights, universal suffrage or Western democracy.

    May 23, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      Oh, one more thing, what Western Democracy? If you are talking about America, we are a Republic not a Democracy. I find everyone thinking America is a democracy a joke. IF WE WERE, we wouldn't have polictical parties because everyone would be THINKING on their own and basising their vote on what they believe. IF WE WERE, every vote counts and there would be no Electorial College to elect the President. Get it right, please.

      May 24, 2012 at 8:02 am | Reply
  22. Bazoing

    One obstacle is Islam. It specifies a government and that is not democracy. End of story.

    May 23, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  23. Mark

    The article is a joke anyway. What does political parties have to do with democray anyway? Even America is not a democracy, we are a REPUBLIC. So why do we keep saying we need to give other countries Democracy when we don't do it ourselves? Even our "democratic ways" are controlled by small groups of people.

    President = Electoral Colege
    Senator, House of Representative = Political Party

    May 24, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      We were a Republic. Now we are governed by bankers and the ultrarich. Open your eyes.

      May 24, 2012 at 8:22 am | Reply
  24. Rachel Golem

    There are only 3 things you need to know about Egypt.

    1) They have 81 million people.

    2) They import 40% of their food.

    3) They are running out of money very quickly.

    Nothing else matters. They can vote for anything they want. They are doomed.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
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    August 28, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Reply
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