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 (248 Responses)
  1. WaspSting

    "...a working Muslim democratic system..." heh – i think that kinda goes with statements like "jumbo shrimp", student teacher", "civil war" and last but not least: "a fine mess". oxy – MORON – ism at its best. Separation of religion and state is the only viable solution.

    June 15, 2012 at 12:11 am | Reply
    • JCP

      Typical ignorance of an American. No wonder you're country is going down fast. With an ignorant population, how will the US continue to dominate the world? Muslim democracies: Bangladesh, Turkey, Maldives, Lebanon, Malaysia, Indonesia, Senegal, Sierra Leone...and the rest of the Arab Spring revolt; a cry for democracy against dictators and thugs supported by Israeli loyalists like Sheldon Adelson who control US politicians with their purse strings.

      June 15, 2012 at 4:34 am | Reply
  2. John

    Either Zakaria has no idea what the real problem is or he knows it and downplaying it. The real problem in Egypt is Islamic fundamentalism.

    June 15, 2012 at 1:33 am | Reply
    • TJ

      Funny, how you as a non-Egyptian outsider feels compelled to tell an Egyptian that his own Muslim religion is the problem. Why don't you keep to your self and deal with America's myriad of problems instead of lecturing other countries on who to elect as their leader. How did Iraq work out for you?

      June 15, 2012 at 4:36 am | Reply
  3. billmosby

    If Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world, what does that make Saudi ARABia?

    June 15, 2012 at 1:54 am | Reply
    • Cris-Je-Isl

      The sleeping giant or Penguin.

      They sized the land, from native Saudis, they brought foreigners to dig the Oil lands, they killed native Saudis to take the Oil revenues just for their own.

      Before the Oil found in Saudi, there weren't Penguin dresses.

      June 18, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  4. bc

    wow – i don't mean to disrespect the many commenters on this article but it almost seems like a church or republican party group has sent a flood of folks to this article to bash it. as i commented earlier, i have serious misgivings about what fareed is saying here – particularly and specifically the seeming implicit lack of separation of religion and government in a theoretical egyptian democracy.

    those who are calling for the eradication of islam, etc are expressing a venomous racism or xenophobia and are being completely unrealistic. the fact is that islam is the religion of billions of people worldwide. most of those people are happy to be muslims, and probably the vast majority of those muslims are decent peace-loving people. the problem isn't islam, it's islamic extremists. think of them as if the KKK and militia groups in the US gained a huge following, even to the point of being a major problem for any government to handle, and had a huge network of militia training camps and started widespread terrorist activity – timothy mcveigh style. they may be christian. they may claim to be the 'true' christians. but that doesn't mean the rest of americans should be considered part of this group.

    the real problem in the middle east is that the extremist islamic groups have become dangerously popular, and since they are angry and violent, moderate people – family people – are afraid to stand up against them and get drowned out. especially when it seems like these groups are set to become the rulers of the country.

    the only way to fix this is for the common people to be better educated and for groups that advocate violence to be aggressively suppressed. not the whole religion, just the jihadist element. it should be seen as a crime to instigate violence, regardless of where it is directed. ideally, it should also be strongly discouraged for people to foment hatred against israel, america, jews, christians, etc. look at germany – it's a crime there to glorify nazism.

    tl;dr – i know

    June 15, 2012 at 2:45 am | Reply
  5. tman

    'a working muslim democratic system" what planet is Fareed from ...all they want to do is rule the world by sharia law not democracy...when is this guy going to open his eyes....the brotherhood ...yeah thats what they want ,democracy in middle east...maybe they should partner up with iran and and really get the movement rolling..i cant belive people really dont see whats happening there....

    June 15, 2012 at 6:32 am | Reply
  6. dave richman

    A blend of church and state will lead to oppression of the "unbelievers". Our founders knew this because they had experienced it first hand in England. The Egyptians know it because of the many examples all around them in the middle east. Freedom will not come through the MB.

    June 15, 2012 at 7:06 am | Reply
  7. Eman

    So far from reality

    June 15, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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 |
  16. 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
  17. 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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