Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Illiberal Democracy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 27, 2012 --  

India proves that democracy can work in some developing countries. Egypt may not be one of them.

When Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi declared near absolute powers, suspending judgements by the nation's courts, secular minded Egyptians were outraged. Liberal activists joined supporters of the former dictatorship in a secular alliance to protest against the Islamist government.

This alliance fuels beliefs harbored by many in the West that true democracy is impossible in the Arab world. An impoverished, ignorant, and deeply religious society is a poor candidate for democracy, threatening to make elections a one-time event. Just as the Nazi Parry used elections to gain dictatorial power, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is now on a path to do the same.

This problem is not unique to the Islamic world. India, the world's largest democracy, illiberal political parties representing ethnic and religious groups have long been part of the equation.

In Mumbai last week, a megalopolis of 20 million people ground to a halt for the Hindu funeral of the leader of the Shiv Sena "Shiva's Army" party that has ruled the surrounding Maharashtra state for decades. And when Two teenage girls dared question the wisdom of the urban shutdown on Facebook, they were arrested and allegedly abused while in custody.1

The chauvenistic party draws power from the impoverished Hindu masses of the Maratha ethnic group that dominates the city's slums and the province's hinterlands. Shiv Sena tried to remake cosmopolitan British-founded Bombay for the Marathi people, renaming it Mumbai In 1996, and since then renaming half the sites in the city for their revered 17th century Marathi king. The world famous Victoria Terminus railway station became known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Same goes for the international airport. And, yes, the city's premier Prince of Wales museum, among other sites, was renamed the same.

Yet parties like this as have not meant the end of democracy in India. No such party dominates nationally, and India has a strong constitution that protects its liberal electoral system. One way or another, it works.

Not so in Egypt. The transition from a military-based dictatorship to democracy has left the country without a constitution to protect a democratic system. What's worse, the process of generating a constitution is under the management of the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood government, giving every reason to believe that it will not end well. Thus, both liberal-minded Egyptians and their secular allies from the former dictatorship took to the streets today, denouncing an alleged agreement between the country's judges and the Muslim Brotherhood to diffuse the current crisis.

This episode says less about the appropriateness of democracy for Egypt and the Arab world and more about Westerners misallocated respect for electoral democracy. The truth is that it is not actual elections that are so important. The key to Western society is the twin constitutional limits on government power and popular support for these limits -- not just popular support for elections themselves. These conditions are simply not present in much of the developing world. India was lucky enough to build a liberal constitution inspired by its its former colonial ruler, and to have leaders from the independence movement like Ghandi and Nehru who were enlightened enough to share these constitutional values. This enabled the democratic system to survive the prejudices and backward thinking of the impoverished masses that is shared between India and Egypt.

In both countries, group identity and the desire for revenge for past injustices trumps more civic minded concerns like picking up the garbage, fighting crime, and creating a good environment for businesses to succeed. In much of the developing world, people think of themselves more as members of a group than as individuals, making democracy unworkable in the same way as it does in the West.

Clearly, Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi is no Mahatma Ghandi. The sad truth for Egypt is that without a powerful champion for liberal democracy, the country's revolution will end up trading an unpopular secular dictatorship for a popular Islamic one.

Related Web Columns:

Still Tarnished, September 18, 2012

Twitter Feeds and Tie-Dies, February 8, 2011


1. NDTV, Action After Facebook Arrests: Two Police Officers Suspended, Shiv Sena Calls for Bandh in Palghar Tomorrow, November 27, 2012