Building Democratic Polity in the Face of Islamism

From The Immanent Frame, an article describing where democracy went wrong in Egypt, and doesn’t blame the Islamists. The author draws on James Madison’s assertion that factionalism cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom, and that the only path is to create democratic governmental mechanisms that prevent a certain faction from taking over the state.

This, unfortunately, never took place in Egypt. Non-Islamist political forces, for one reason or another, were never able to develop the kind of broad and cohesive coalitions that could have effectively represented them. After the constitutional crisis of the fall of 2012, moreover, they effectively threw in the towel, and formed the National Salvation Front.

The article states the NSF sought to undermine the government rather than seek to compete with it.

Even if it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an anti-democratic movement, it could not have threatened an Egyptian democracy, at least as long as other Egyptian political movements played their role in such a democracy by organizing their supporters into cohesive parties that could effectively compete at the ballot box. Even if it took a couple of rounds of electoral losses before they successfully organized themselves, it would have been worth it to build a genuine democratic coalition.

The question the opposition might give in response is that the Brotherhood showed inclination not to reform the state and open up a democratic polity, but to inherit the Mubarak state and maintain its relative authoritarianism. The author admits the Brotherhood’s illiberal leanings, but finds it would not ultimately have mattered.

In short, so long as there is at least the credible prospect of a politically competitive system, there is no reason to believe that the principles underlying the median voter theorem would not have applied to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood until such time as the non-Islamist opposition could have organized itself more effectively. Ironically, then, it may very well be the case that the biggest problem facing Egyptian democracy is not that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is too committed to its own organization, as many Egyptian commentators have suggested, but rather that other Egyptian groups lack the internal discipline necessary to form an effective nationwide coalition.

This seems too rosy an application of Madison, but spot on concerning the fault of the opposition. But there is more strong critique to come.

Success at the ballot box is not mere “ballotocracy,” to be casually dismissed, as many Egyptian liberals have claimed. An inability to form an electoral majority signifies an inability to govern—at least in the absence of overwhelming force.

So what then? Here is the author’s hindsight analysis:

The fact that there is no credible liberal democratic political party does not mean, however, that Omar Suleiman was right. It only means that Egypt has not yet produced such a party. The existence of such a party is not, however, a precondition for a functioning electoral democracy; it is the product of the practice of democracy over multiple rounds and iterations.

It is too late now, unless it isn’t too late. This would be the claim of the liberals, that the democratic order is now coming under a strong and guiding hand. The author disagrees, and thinks they took the easy way out.

As a result of their short-sighted strategies, Egypt faces at least several years of renewed authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to exclude their competitors from politics, Egyptians need to embrace competitive politics and accept the substantial costs of building a competitive electoral system from the ground up, even if that requires letting your opponents win from time to time.

Ironically, his advice may have been heeded by an unintended audience. The Salafi Nour Party may have sensed what was coming, took their licks, and ensured their coming place in the order – democratic or otherwise.

If not democratic, Muslim governments have long had their ‘sultan’s sheikhs’, as the Nour Party is now derogatorily called by pro-Morsi Islamists. But if democratic, they stand ready to inherit the Islamist mantle. Perhaps they will lose elections to come, but by building up the polity, their bet is for the long haul.

Who knows the developing political orientation of the people, but if Gulf funding is any indicator, these Salafis may be the best students of Madison.

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