The ongoing spectacle that is the presidential election in Egypt provides the framework for some serious reflection and consideration. For that matter, the whole charade of ‘democratic process,’ wherein two diametrically opposed groups, the Brotherhood and the military, can both claim victory and both accuse the other of fraud, may cause one to question just how deeply the concepts of democracy and liberty have penetrated the ‘Arab Spring’.
The thoughtful and optimistic citizens of the West are quick to applaud the Egyptians on the ‘historic’ occasion—the potential to elect their first civilian president in a generation—while conveniently overlooking the rather unseemly sides of the two contenders. On the one hand there is Mohammad Morsi, a man who has, in his history with the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed that “Islam is the way” and made his name “stamping out political dissent within the group,” and has said that he “would not support women or Coptic Christians as president.” On the other is Ahmed Shafik, a “military-backed strongman” whom most observers fear will be “unrestrained by either a constitution or Parliament.”
Beyond the manifold flaws in both of the choices, there is a general feeling of distrust and suspicion surrounding the whole affair; those opposed to the Islamists fear that this will be the election that turns Egypt into Iran or Saudi Arabia, and just as many on the other side are sure that the outcome will negate the efforts of the revolution by reinstating the old military regime. Some are even convinced that Mubarak’s alleged coma and his being put on life-support are part of a conspiracy to get him out of jail!
In other ‘Arab Spring’ theaters too, the story of a ‘triumphant journey to democratic tranquility’ has become more of a punch line to a sarcastic quip; in Libya, “the aspirations to replace Gaddafi's repressive rule with an ordered, democratic nation are being undermined by increasingly wayward volunteer militias who operate outside the control of fragile state institutions.” In Tunisia, fears are mounting over the rise of the increasingly dominant, ultra-conservative Islamist Ennahda party, the members of which have answered the call of radical clerics and joined forces with the Syrian uprising, causing the Tunisian people to dread their return back to the streets of Tunisia once Assad and his regime have been toppled.
One well might wonder why democracy is unable to gain a foothold in the Middle East, after such proud and vocal public approval; could it be that the idea of liberal democracy in Egypt or the rest of the countries involved in the movement out from under oppressive regimes is not conceived as an end in itself—something to be celebrated and appreciated for the power it puts in the hands of the people—but rather as a vehicle to the next, most appealing form of absolute power? As Henry Kissinger ponders in “The Limits of Universalism” (found in the June issue of The New Criterion): “how do we avoid the risk of fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites?”