June 14th, 2012
12:10 PM ET

The real obstacle to democracy in Egypt

Editor's note: Egypt's highest court on Thursday declared the parliament invalid, and the country's interim military rulers declared full legislative authority, triggering a new level of chaos and confusion in the country's leadership. Here's a post from last month, where Fareed Zakaria examines the problem of Egypt's military dictatorship.

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.

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.

Post by:
Topics: Egypt

soundoff (249 Responses)
  1. Xavier

    Democracy isn't perfect (by a long stretch) but it beats these guys and their ultimatum-giving, male-dominated Machiavellian-oriented, war-making mentality by a thousand miles. Until they unhook the law-makers from the dogma followers (separate mosque and state) they will continue to cause others to suffer. It’s fairly ironic that iron-clad social and religious dictates (designed to control the population) often result in catastrophic failures for the ruling class. You'd think that they might have learned from the North American experience but they only have vacation property here...where they send their children for a proper education and a taste of freedom.

    June 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  2. Guacamole

    As most informed analysts and observers have noted that with the election of an extremist Islamic organization like the Mosllem Brotherhood, the gains made over the past 1400 years would essentially be wiped out and the country plunged back into the 8th Century.

    Like it or not, the courts had to protect the Egyptians from the own ill-informed choices before those choices came back to bite them in the butt, domestically and internationally. As to the Moslem Brotherhood and their Salafist ideology, I say good riddance.

    June 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  3. marcy

    The Middle East is full of Clowns and Buffoons and always will be...Its a way of life!

    June 15, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  4. muslimsaretherealobstacle

    I think that moderate liberal Egyptians probably feel the same way about the elections that brought the MB to prominence in Parliament with a strong contingent of even more religiously extreme Salafists in 2nd place.

    Whose revolution is it? What is the purpose of the Revolution? Can you protect the rights of the individual against the will or even the tyranny of the majority? We struggle with these things in the West, but having attempted to separate Church and State, and having we have a shot at finding a workable balance.

    The Egyptian Revolution to oust Mubarak started out without the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood. But a democratic vote always gives the right to choose to the people, ultimately.

    June 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  5. yoyo

    hoo boy. More extremism. But in this case, it's not between left and right – it's between religious conservatives and secular authoritarians. What a choice!

    June 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  6. Malka

    Hmm...the Moslem Brotherhood have made it known that the capital of Egypt once they get elected will be Jerusalem, I wonder how they're going to make that happen. Even more so if those promoting democracy and supporting the so-called right to choose their own course independent of outside interference are also supporting the right of Egyptian Salafists to declare and make war against Israel.

    June 15, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  7. Practical

    "The Brotherhood reacted in its statement by charging that progress made since Mubarak was ousted was being "wiped out and overturned.""

    What's the progress they've been making?

    Mohammed Morsi was introduced to Egyptian voters as the man who'll create a "United States of Arabs", destroy Israel, establish Jerusalem as the capital of the "United States of Arabs" and initiate the Caliphate

    In the speech that launched Morsi's campaign, the crowd was encouraged to brandish their weapons, be martyrs for Jerusalem, "Banish the sleep from the eyes of all Jews", "Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas", "We shall pray in Jerusalem, or else we shall die as martyrs on its threshold".

    Here's the speech that launched Morsi's campaign (Al-Nas TV (Egypt) – May 1, 2012)

    And there are those who tell us the Muslim Brotherhood is "moderate".

    Is THIS the progress that they've been making?

    June 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  8. deep blue

    There seems to be a significant amount of confusion on this forum. I'll make it simple.

    Just because a country is a democratic republic does not mean that it will do everything the United States believes it should do. In fact, they tend to be more difficult to bribe than corrupt dictators that need our weapons to stay in power, so the United States has less influence over Democratic governments than dictators.

    Democracy is the best thing for the people of any country. In the long run, Democracy in foreign governments is in the best interest of the United States too. In the short run, even or perhaps especially in democratic countries, the rights of minorities will be violated and foreign policy toward Israel and the United States will be hostile if that's what the people want. If you really want to protect the rights of minorities, a top down, big government, military dictatorship won't cut it. You need a grassroots change in the way people think. Democracy can help that, but it takes a while. It took the United States almost a century to abolish slavery, and almost two to pass the civil rights act of 1964. We paved the way, but Egypt may still require a couple of years.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
    • deep blue

      Some have argued that several "Democracies" have become theocracies, specifically citing Iran. There were several key differences in Iran.

      1. We had originally installed the Shah of Iran, replacing their democracy. That put a damper on the new government wanting to do anything like the US when the Shah was overthrown.
      2. The Egyptian revolution was far less bloody. Civil war often brings the most radical of leaders to power. Mubarak stepped down before the bloodbath. Because of this, there is less hate toward the western backed government than there was in Iran.
      3. The Egyptian military is still in power. This hedges the Islamists, but as Zakaria noted, also risks maintenance of a military dictatorship.
      4. Other autocrats still have support. This is largely a result of the military playing politics, blaming the economic instability on the revolutionaries and have intentionally let some protests get out of hand to justify crackdowns. Some people want everything to settle down so they can make a living again like there were under Mubarak and associate that kind of stability with the autocrats that used to be in power..

      June 16, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
      • Monique

        The only way a democracy became a theocracy in Iran is by the religious leader stealing the government in the name of Allah. People are easy to trick and manipulate when they are indoctrinated five times a day and kept ignorant through a lack of education.

        June 16, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  9. Onikami

    religion is democracy's enemy. prove me wrong.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Reply
    • Onikami

      nothing? must have made a point.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  10. Coldwell Banker New Homes - Real Estate Egypt - Real Estate in Egypt

    I do agree with all the ideas you've introduced for your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for starters. Could you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
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