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. 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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