Before 2011, Egyptians lived for over 30 years under the tyrannical rule of Hosni Mubarak. In January 2011, people began filling the streets demanding revolution, with the centre of the protests taking place in Tahir Square in Cairo. After a month of conflict between the government and the Egyptian people, Mubarak resigned. The country held its first presidential elections in January 2012, with Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist Free and Justice Party taking power.
However, the revolution has not moved forward peacefully.
Morsi was removed from office earlier this month in what many consider to be a military coup. Politics has since moved from the assembly to the streets, with factional violence replacing debate and discussion.
These early setbacks have led many commentators in the West to question the prospect of democracy in the region, with some even asking whether democracy is culturally suitable for Egypt.
Culture, however, has nothing to do with Egypt’s troubles. As the origins of democracy in the West teach us, no matter where it occurs, liberal democracy, in its early stages, is a messy business.
Take the world’s first democratic state, France. After the overthrow of France’s hereditary rulers in 1789, many French citizens and international spectators were overjoyed with the new democratic experiment. Historians tell stories about a new voice emerging in France demanding radical social change.
In the 18th century, the revolution did not go as the democrats had hoped. First, the country established a fragile constitutional monarchy. This regime was short-lived as civil strife overtook the nation and a radical, secular government took its place. This was followed by a string of violent historical episodes, and to make a long story short, France ended the first few attempts at democracy with Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor.
One can also look at the United States, which was founded on the theft of indigenous lands, with historians like David Cesarani arguing that the policies of the American and British colonial governments constituted a genocide of the indigenous population. Despite having a constitution founded by impassioned democrats like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the constitution was first interpreted to say that only white, land-owning males had the right to democracy. Women, blacks and indigenous peoples all suffered under the new democracy. The country’s history is scared by a civil war between the North and the South and blacks were not enfranchised in parts of the country until the 1960s.
After the American revolutionary war ended in 1783, almost 200 years passed before a fully franchised democracy took shape.
A successful democratic state rests on a healthy civil society, and under Mubarak’s Egypt, building one was impossible. In his one-party state, forming opposition political parties was strictly forbidden and to question state policy was to risk death. With the nation’s history this troubled, it should be no surprise that their transition to democracy has been difficult.
Democratic government can work in Egypt, but the civil society necessary for it to be healthy takes time to form, just as it did in all the democracies of the West. Until then, our assumptions about the Egyptian people should not be condescending or ethnocentric. After all, even the oldest democracies have had their share of troubles.