What do you view as misconceptions about democracy? Specifically, as they apply to countries that have recently undergone dramatic political change, such as Egypt?
Well, I think the way to start the answer here is to look at democracy in a historical sense and not in an a historical sense like so many of the journalists covering what happened, and in a sense is continuing to happen in, for instance, Tahrir Square. And I’m working on a paper now in which I am sort of using the description of the United States’ Apollo 13 mission, which was characterized, at least in the film, as a successful failure. The success was bringing the astronauts home alive after such a paralyzing mission, but the failure obviously was not landing on the moon. And to me, democracy is a lot like the oxymoronically described Apollo 13 mission. You know, one believes that it is the best form of government and theoretically, democracy’s probably the most effective type of government when tasked with combating domestic tyranny and simultaneously being the strongest “enforcer” and “protector” of personal liberties and working towards government restraint. Now, one could argue, particularly with the case United States today, how much has our government been restrained by democracy, but I think the more important question is: Is this the case in the Middle East? And in terms of the United States and the West, democracy in my judgment appears to be the number one ideological exportation of these countries, and you know, Professor Kenneth Minogue who has written a lot about democracy said, “We would certainly not tolerate any different system in our own states. Yet most people are disenchanted by the way that it works.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.
So why is this? Why is democracy craved by most people in the world? What is the historical position on democracy? I began my analysis by exploring what the Greek philosophers said about Democracy. Not only the Greek philosophers, but the classical ones as well. I think there’s some wisdom here that’s often overlooked. Plato argued that he wanted a philosophically inclined kingship with a sort of board of scholars that met during the night to craft laws. Nothing particularly democratically about that. Aristotle shared no love for democracy either, he preferred a kingship. And although he conceded that it was unsustainable, he wanted an aristocracy. You know, even beyond that, Thomas Hobbes who’s arguably the most authoritarian thinker in modern times, never spoke of democracy. John Locke wanted an aristocracy with a constitutional monarch, and Rousseau didn’t really care what type of government you had as long as the legislative power lay with the people. So you could have a very strong executive team, but as long as the people passed the laws, he was fine with it. And you know, we all know where Karl Marx stood on democracy. So they spoke of monarchs and kings and a ruling class…and did they see something we missed?
So to bring us back to the Middle East, in Egypt’s recent history, you know, not even discussing British and Ottoman, which the Ottoman Empire outlasted the British Empire 500 years, give or take. Since their independence, leaders included: Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, there’s no historical sense of democracy here at all – they were all autocrats. So from understanding it differently, from historical perspective, not one that’s ahistorical, and looking at Egypt’s recent history alone, with the nationalist regimes, I think it’s naive to say that democracy’s going to be a seedbed there.
Several North African countries, including Egypt have experienced political and regime changes follow public demonstrations and mass protests. The changes in these countries, as well as the ongoing situations in countries like Syria and Libya, have been labeled as "revolutions." Do you consider this label to be accurate?
Well, let’s understand what we mean by revolution. Revolution, according to Mao, Chairman Mao of China, who was the sort of poster child of revolution basically argued it is an entire overthrow of the existing system and which is now supplanted by what we have developed through our revolution. So, France, with the Jacobins, Robespierre, that was a revolution. You know, sort of the guillotine, the blood running through the streets and destruction of the old order. Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, pulling the czar out of his home and killing him in the street and now going on this ideological exploitation of Communism, that was a revolution. On the other side, the American “Revolution,” which I think is always mischaracterized as a revolution, should be a war of independence, because nothing really had changed from the British rule. I mean the colonists were claiming an injustice. There was a tax they didn’t like, and they thought they weren’t being treated as Englishmen. They were already free people, who disliked a tax, in which King George did not want to repeal. It is not like the colonists overthrew the British and created a socialist state – there are many connections between the American and British system. We can save this for a different time. Now in technical terms, in order to be liberated from something, you have to be oppressed. So there’s this sense of oppression and in order to liberate one, you have to overthrow everything that one used to oppress them. Now in the case of Egypt, Mubarak is gone. That’s about it. Everything else he used that fired up this protest, which was viewed as oppressive, needed to be destroyed in order to qualify, in my judgment, as a revolution. And we don’t have that If anything, the tyranny continues by virtue of the military taking control there. So oppression and liberation go together and they’re sort of the verb of revolution. And what we see in Egypt as I wrote in the article is status quo minus Mubarak.
To continue on that theme, what does this nomenclature mean for policymaking towards the affected country, for example, Egypt, by other countries, for example, the United States?
Sure. Well, what happens is when you begin to see these things in a sort of revolutionary type sense, it gets all your little enzymes going when you believe, ‘wow, they’re having a revolution just like we once did as American, were we bored through the existing order, where changing our lives that’s going to be a seedbed of democracy’ And what that says is let’s do everything we can to help them, before helping our own citizens, of course. When in fact, the opposite, the effects of which are always negative. When you look at the history of humanitarian intervention, you know, saying we have to protect rights and dispel autocracies, I don’t see one instance, just from the 1990s till present, whether you’re looking at Somalia or Kosovo or Bosnia, now most recently Libya, that says feeding off this what a colleague of mine, and professor at The Catholic University of America Claes Ryn, who has written extensively on neoconservative thinking, described as a “democratist” enzyme that we need to spread all this western way of life, whether it be politically or through military force, I don’t see one successful case in history. Now the fact that we’re going to begin to get involved in Egypt, after a flip-flopping foreign policy, after the very much ideological Obama 2008 Cairo speech, when Paul Wolfowitz wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine arguing that he liked what he was hearing from Obama… Obama is no realist, as so many believe he was going to be – or a pragmatist. I was not fooled, but I thought anything had to be better than President Bush’s approach. Nevertheless, an inconsistent foreign policy emerged during this whole crisis from January to now and then to expect that things are going to work out the way we want them to, couldn’t be further from the truth. And if anything, a democracy in Egypt is not going to be as friendly to the United States or Israel, the regional player, because if it is a democracy, you now have people, their voices are heard as opposed to the sole dictator, which we’re used to there. There’s a lot of anger towards the West, whether it be in terms of neoliberalism or whether it be in terms of this ideological battle with the West over religion and cultural wars. Whatever it might be, it’s actually irrelevant how we characterize where the discontent comes from. But the fact that now we’re going to call it a revolution, everything is going to happy, everyone is going to be happy and all of a sudden, they’re going to embrace the West and the United States because we believe revolution means democracy when it’s not the case, it’s foolish. And so it affects policymaking in short, because your perception of what’s happening isn’t really happening.
Do you have any concerns for Egypt and other countries in their pursuit of a democratic system? What are the potential pitfalls or false expectations? Do you think that it is possible for a democratic system to develop and succeed in any of the countries we've discussed?
Well, I think just again, to look at recent history, well not even recent, I mean let’s take it from the Ottoman Empire onward. These countries in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, which I want to just bracket that, go back to it in a second; there has not been a shred of democracy in these Middle Eastern countries as far as Western standards are concerned. And you could look at the freedom, you know, the different indices, etc.,and there’s a lot of undemocractic ratings in the Middle East. Those states fall particularly high on that chart. Now with the exception of Israel, who recently passed a legislation banning criticism of the state because they believed it was delegitimizing the state, I mean it’s just foolish that a state can believe let’s quash free speech in order to seek legitimacy. It’s absurd. I guess no one in Israel had ever read Edmund Burke, at least in the Israeli parliament, and they’re not used to it. So Israel now is even falling into this debate questions:, what’s going on there with freedom and liberty, so on, so forth. Nevertheless, I recently read that Egypt was turning to Turkey to be, to look as a model of democracy. And sure, I think Turkey, out of all those countries, may be the closest to what the West would consider democracy, and it may show signs, but elections alone don’t qualify as democracy, and if you look at all the measured democracy rating indices, some of the words they use to describe Turkey are partly free, moderately free, difficult situation, hybrid regime, etc., etc. So Turkey is what the benchmark is for democracy in the Middle East for these countries that are trying to figure out where they’re going. I don’t really see how good that’s really going to be for them, you know? And if they’re even able to reach that point. We know this took a long time for Turkey to evolve the way it did. And part of the other issue is what are the preconditions you need to have a successful democracy? You need a well-educated population, a literate population, an employed population, some sort of economic stability, which has been deprived from these countries through the nationalist leaders that they’ve had, since basically the end of the 1950s. So if there’s no preconditions, if there’s no other state to really benchmark against because Turkey’s the only one being that we don’t want to look towards the West as an example, I don’t really see how democracy’s going to flourish in these countries. I mean, even Iran after it went through its revolution, look how far backwards it came from where it was under the shah. And although we may not like the shah, he may have been, killed 50,000 people leading up to the revolution, look however that this sort of reverse effect that the revolution has had in Iran, embracing a theocratic regimethere. So you know, if these countries, these states are going to look elsewhere, I don’t really see Turkey being the best model for democracy.
You have previously stated that you do not consider the events in Egypt during January and February of this year a revolution. However, since the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian protests have continued. Is this a sign that Egypt is slowly transitioning to a democracy, or is this a false hope in the West?
Yeah, I think it would be naive to argue that Egypt is transitioning to a democracy right now. I mean it’s only been, it’s been less than one year since the removal of Mubarak, and to be frank, we don’t know where it’s going. And as we have known very little about how states, particularly ones with a high religious fervor and cultural differences, you know remember, Egypt used to be part of the Sudan and so on, colonial borders, history of imperialism, whatever it might be, nevertheless, Egypt’s military remain in control. The only real organized political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and I don’t see any of the secular left or right in strong organization. And we don’t have to be reminded about the Muslim Brotherhood’s track record.
So a few of the questions I have for this idea of transition is how do we measure it? What metrics do we use to measure how Egypt is transforming, if they are transforming at all? So if we use our standards, but Egypt is using Turkey’s standards, what does that tell us? Who’s right and who’s wrong? How do we really assess what a democracy is? these questions I think are much more important than who was responsible for what happened here and who was Mubarak’s friend and who wasn’t.
A much more illuminating question is what system will we see in Egypt in five years? You know, are we going to see a resurgence of a sort of Nasser nationalist pan-Arab movement, or are we going to see a very, very disjunctured country that is almost falls into what Libya, what’s happening in Libya now when you have battles on each side, how to move the country forward. Democracy is, transitioning to democracy is, to quote Mansfield and Schneider, two famous political scientists; it’s like driving a car backwards while looking forwards with broken mirrors. I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s essentially what’s going to happen. And if you look at the American “revolution,” there was no democratism stage because there was no revolution. Things just sort of moved on from the Constitution, based on what they had learned from free people in England. And now you have this overthrow of a dictator and you have this struggle as to what’s to come next. And we’ve seen in history, people don’t concede power very quickly. They don’t leave very fast. And if there was a real revolution in Egypt, the bourgeoisie would have been overthrown. The banking system would have been transformed, and everything as I said in the article that Mubarak used as a form of oppression against those who protested would be dissolved. But they're not. It’s status quo. So you know, to get on the revolution bandwagon and say democracy is in, you know, this sort of seedbed, you know, Egypt is going to be, like you said, a Jeffersonian-like democracy, I think is naive. I think we have to take it as it is. And from a US perspective, I said this several times, play reactionary policy. Do not prescribe anything, do not be seen as a non-disinterested third party because all that’s going to do is stir up more animosity. But even though the US effect on the Middle East and Egypt in particular has been indirect, rather than direct, you know, according to Niall Ferguson, who argues that in order to understand the problems of the Middle East, if one is going to be fair in assessing contemporary hardship, one has to not slight 500 years of Ottoman Empire rule and more recently, nationalist regimes in the various countries that have deprived their citizens of rights. And yes, the Western colonial history, which existed for approximately 50 years, according to Ferguson, bears little resemblance to the world we see today. His sort of main point was, “Why did science develop in the West and not in the Middle East?” It is not a byproduct of U.S. foreign policy is it? Of course not. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of anti-American sentiment there. So I think for us to pull the reins back in Egypt, because we can’t in Libya, is probably the best move we could take at this point. So my advice would be don’t understand these events until they’ve happened. And it’s going to be a very interesting course. And it’s for the Egyptians to settle, not for anybody else.
Is there anything else you feel observers should consider when looking at the recent and ongoing events in Egypt?
One of the things that I’m always interested in is well, why are these issues covered the way they are? So why do we say Tahrir Square was a great success and Egypt’s on this path to democracy, and all we have to do is bomb Gaddafi and kill Gaddafi and Libya will be on this path. Syria’s going to withdraw. There’s no evidence to me, whether it be historically or now, that simply advocating democracy and standing behind various groups in other countries as a third party, has been proven successful. So I’m very curious. I don’t know the answer to this, you know, where does this illusion of what’s going on in these countries, this naiveté, really emanate from? I think before we begin analyzing what happens in Egypt and Syria and Bahrain, etc., etc, insofar as it’s not part of our national interest, I think we really need to as a bigger question, is why are we interpreting these events as something that they are very not? Something that they aren’t at all? That, I think, is a big question that needs to be answered soon. But I don’t know the answer and I don’t know if many people, if anybody does. But to me, that’s the biggest challenge about understanding these events. What are our metrics? What’s our methodology? How do we look at these things? Why are we looking at them in a way that’s continually being detrimental to US interests?
Patrick Corcoran is a lecturer at The Catholic University of America
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