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Democracy In Dangerous Places: Egypt – What Went Wrong?

Paul Collier - 17th July 2013
Democracy In Dangerous Places: Egypt – What Went Wrong?

Paul Collier argues that the tragedy of Egypt is to have held a premature election: its people have just been promised another one.

Superficially, Egypt is back where it started before the Arab Spring: military rule. But in fact it is in a far more dangerous situation. Then, a large majority of the population was united in despising the ruling regime and the military was able to play the role of deus ex machine, ushering in an election.

Today, Egyptian society is revealed as deeply polarized between rival and incompatible narratives, while the army has forfeited its credentials as an arbiter. Piling on the agony, fate has driven the rival narratives into internal incoherence. One is based on the concept of democratic rights, the other on Islamic government. As far as can be ascertained, a rural-based majority adheres to the Islamic model, while an urban-based minority adheres to democratic rights.

The election held in the wake of the Arab Spring duly produced a democratically elected government that did not believe in democracy. It used its victory to consolidate its own power and exclude others. The alternative would have been little better: a democratically elected government opposed by a mobilized opposition that did not regard it as legitimate. The pro-democracy minority has now used its privileged street power in Cairo to authorize a military coup. In response, the ousted Islamists are appealing to democratic principles to which they do not subscribe, while the democrats are wriggling to reconcile their principles with a non-democratic outcome of which they approve. The most reasonable inference is that following the Arab Spring the society was too deeply divided for an election.

Elections inevitably produce winners and losers. In societies where the parameters of disagreement are reasonably narrow, and where power is heavily circumscribed by checks and balances, this works well. It generates a healthy alternation of power between political teams. In societies characterized by the opposite – weak checks and balances and polarized disagreements – the range of likely outcomes from an election is dire. Groups will cheat to win; once in power they will abuse it; and if out of power they resort to mass tactics of destabilization. Elections have become the sanctifying oil that legitimates power because they are standard accoutrements of the developed societies. They have consequently become an ostentatious symbol of the modernity to which most societies aspire. But viable elections are a consequence of deeper and slower revolutions in how people see each other. The parameters of political disagreement become manageable only once they are underpinned by a degree of mutual regard among members of the society. In Europe the spread of mutual regard – empathy – preceded universal suffrage by several decades. For example, Steven Pinker dates the key decline of violence within European societies to the nineteenth century; the demise of duelling and public executions being symptomatic of a deep change in sensibilities. In Egypt, the spectacle of religious leaders successfully inciting their followers to murder those of their fellow citizens with other beliefs reveals that it is not yet such a society.

Given this, a further election is more likely to exacerbate mutual hatreds than to resolve political differences. Until adequate mutual regard has been built, the least damaging structure of political power is likely to be a grand coalition. Grand coalitions are unlikely to produce good government, but by imposing strong checks and balances within the heart of government, they limit the scope for further aggravation of divisions. Grand coalitions also provide a metaphor for the larger task of building mutual regard. In the language of Robert Putnam, divided societies are in need of ‘bridging’ social capital – associations within which people from opposing groups learn to cooperate. Public policies can foster bridging social capital, for example through requiring integrated schooling. At a minimum, they can clamp down on hate language.

Such social healing cannot be done quickly and it cannot be done by outsiders. An implication is that divided societies need coalition governments not just for a period of transition but for decades. Most probably, this will bring in its wake other serious problems. But societies may need to develop in sequence, resolving issues of identity before the more mundane issues of good governance.

The promise of another election gets the new government out of a hole today, but it may land the society in yet deeper problems.