Egypt, Failed Democratic Experiment in Polarized Nation

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

Democracy cannot be reduced to a system of rules and procedures unconcerned about deep-seated social contradictions and inequalities in the political process. Democracy is not only a method aimed solely at the formation of a government. Democracy provides a compromise between the powers and responsibilities of the majorities and the powers and rights of the minorities. The political majority rules but the minority must be protected from the tyranny of the majority.

People living in democracy must treat each other politically as equals regardless of their social status, religion and political views. Men and women of any political community in a real democracy must see beyond their families, their tribes and their houses of worship that regard the others as strangers with suspicion as if the others are not people of the same country sharing a common humanity. Despite its simple and reasonable political programs, democracy aroused passion and strong resistance by nations’ elites bringing revolutions and counter-revolutions and bloody civil wars, since Pericles fostered Athenian democracy twenty-five centuries ago. What is happening today in Egypt is the latest example of a failed democratic experiment in a divided nation that has no center to guide.

A year ago, optimism was at its best in Egypt where civilian rule appeared to break with the ugly authoritarian past, but today the Egyptian people have painfully learnt that such optimism was an illusion and the democratic achievements were transients. A military officer ordered the suspension of the constitution and the removal of his own civilian commander-in-chief, the elected president of the country, from office. It turned out that the armed forces continue to be the dominant power in Egypt and the Egyptian democracy was a facade of the military authoritarian rule; and the democratic institutions have been downgraded to empty set of rules written in dead-letter constitution and deprived of their intended meaning for the citizens.

The latest events in Egypt where the military changed a democratically elected regime when the supporters of the opposition parties went to the streets, suggest Egypt is at a critical juncture leading to a new era of practicing direct democracy through anarchy and coercion rather than through institutions. It further suggests that democratic institutions are not available or were discredited when the hopes of the disillusioned Egyptians gave way to frustration and resentment and decided to go to the streets. Should the Egyptians keep settling their differences in the streets, the country will be always on the verge of violence and civil war.

The people have the right to stage peaceful protests and demand solutions to their grievances, but the armed forces as an institution has no business in politics in any democracy. The worst legacy military regimes leave is the militarization of political life. It disrupts the process through which political beliefs and party’s loyalties are established and maintained.

Over the course of six decades the executive control in Egypt passed routinely from one military officer to another. The transition from military rule rarely spells the end of military intervention in political affairs. The capacity of the military as an institution to make its weight felt in the corridors of power may even be enhanced rather than diminished by a transition to a nominally democratic regime. What is happening in Egypt today suggests that after uniformed military personnel disappeared from the presidential palace after the last elections, the armed forces continued to play a major role in determining who rules and how.  In altering the conditions they inherited, military regimes bequeath major political and economic problems to their successors.  More radical leaders may emerge in response to the imprisonment and exile of former political activists.

In any democracy, elections are the link between the citizens and the government. This link can be direct or through representatives. In direct democracy citizens vote on issues without mediation from representatives, while in exercising representative democracy, citizens vote for people they trust to make decisions on their behalf. Every democracy that had come into existence had the potential of degenerating into anarchy or the tyranny of the masses when the people misuse their right in exercising direct democracy. The founders of modern states’ constitutions rescued the reputation of democracy by creating representative institutions in which people could place trusted representatives in office to act on their behalf. The representatives would gather in an environment of deliberation and debate to make decisions and carry out actions.  Direct democracy can coexist with representative democracy and provides results that maintain ‘life and liberty.’  When a representative government does not guarantee that wise decisions would emerge, the founders of mature democracies gave the people the mechanism to exercise direct democracy. They can use the initiative process to pass laws and they can recall elected officials before their terms end.

Direct democracy diminishes the stature of the legislature as a representative body. The initiative process as an exercise of direct democracy has been seen as a detriment to legislators but in some cases it protects legislators  because they can more easily avoid taking a stand on controversial matters that might come back to haunt them at the next election.

Peaceful means and procedures based on laws should allow citizens to replace incumbent officials who fail to live up to expectations. When democratically elected officials break their promises and unveil lack of compassion for their constituency, they can be removed before the expiration of their terms using the recall petition and elections. In the State of California, supporters of the recall must obtain a minimum number of signatures. If enough signatures are collected and approved by the elections commission, voting by all citizens on two questions will be scheduled. The first question is whether or not the officer should be removed, and the second question asks who should replace the officer if majority of the voters choose to recall the sitting office holder. Recall elections are rare, but in 2003 thousands of California voters signed petitions to recall Governor Gray Davis. They were angered over Davis decision to triple the cars’ license fees and his failure to solve the statewide energy crisis. Five months after the recall process started, the voters decided to remove their elected governor from office and the 37th governor of California accepted their judgment.

Egypt and the whole Arab world for that matter have been plagued by the persistent presence of authoritarian political tradition.  Egypt’s suspension of the constitution and return to the military, ironically, with the support of the liberal political groups suggests that it is hard for a constitutional democracy to take hold in a polarized nation that lived under military rule and lacked political freedom for three generations; or, ‘Democracy cannot flourish as a political regime if it is embedded in a society characterized by structures and ideologies antagonistic to the spirit of democracy.’

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to

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