Democracy Is Not The Answer

The writer Alaa Al-Aswany finished many of his essays during the past decade with the phrase “Democracy is the Answer”, a play on the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the Answer”. In the last few days Al-Aswany came out in favor of boycotting the upcoming parliamentary election. Today, it seems, either democracy is not the answer or these particular elections, in his view, are not democracy. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seems happy to promote polls as the answer. There is no parable here, just confusion. Politics in Egypt is slowly becoming a collective primal scream.

Democracy is neither an answer nor a system. Democracy is not even a tool. Modern democracy is an imperfect organism whose sole purpose is self-continuation.  The purpose of practicing democracy is to insure continuation of democratic practice. We vote one set of bastards in so that we can vote them out sometime in the future. The same populace that votes for one set of economic and political ideas will eventually vote for their very opposite. And if this game continues long enough the sides eventually converge on some minimal set of core beliefs, often called “the center”.

Thomas Hobbes is the father of the modern state; the Isaac Newton of politics.  He removed politics from the realm of theology and morality to the sober practice of rules and law. In his view governance is a mere contract between men who give up some of their “natural rights” in exchange for the protections inherent in a stable state. It is not divinely mandated, nor endowed with a divine purpose. Hobbes is the ultimate liberal; a man with no commitment to any system beyond one that guarantees men the maximum freedom possible in a stable and peaceable polity.   Hobbes did not so much remove God and religion from politics  as relegated them to an initial supporting role, then ushering them quickly off the stage. God gives man his inherent rights but quickly withdraws from the fray of politics.

Egypt has been struggling with modernity for two centuries.  Its current tragedy is that its politics is now divided between two factions. On one side we have the pre-Hobbesians, otherwise known as “Political Islamists”. These are men with a purpose; applying God’s law to man. They have little interest in any iterative government, except as a temporary and tactical compromise. For them voting is a self-limiting tool to achieve their aims, after which it will become merely a way to choose different men to govern in identical ways.  On the other side we see an incoherent collection of opponents unified only by what they oppose. Their reasons for opposing the pre-Hobbesians are so varied, and often contradictory, that it is essentially impossible for them to present a coherent platform of ideas. Of course, what is impossible is unlikely to happen. One can expect no clearly articulated plan from this opposition. 

The chaos increased after the Islamists rammed through a constitution designed less to declare and protect the rights of man, than to obfuscate and circumscribe them. The opposition balked and dithered but presented no clear alternative. There was no declaration of ringing clarity to counter the rump constitution.  Many have criticized the opposition for its vagueness of vision and lack of organization. There is no point in repeating these arguments, valid as they may be.  The more relevant point is whether any amount of organization by the non-Islamist opposition can turn Egypt into a functioning democracy under the current circumstances.

The sadness of Egypt is in realizing that a robust coherent liberal opposition might in fact throw the country into further chaos.  Khairat El Shater once said that all Egyptian law and political practice are “Western” deviations from Islam, imposed by “outsiders”. This is why, in a nutshell, worrying about the exact shape of “democratic” elections is besides the point. The competition is not between two visions for Egypt, but between two Egypts. The sooner this painful truth sinks in, the sooner Egyptians can make a choice. But it will be painful.

Modernity is the Answer.



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