We in the West think highly of democracy and for good reason. As Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” It is not that bad of course and democracy remains the best current option we have for ensuring freedom and security. We like it so much that we try to spread it all over the world in the belief that the more countries embrace this system of government the better off we will all be. Unfortunately, we severely underestimate how difficult it is to establish true democratic governance and we forget that it took us centuries to get it mostly right. We nevertheless get frustrated with the torpor with which non-democratic states are making the change. And we are disappointed that the states that experienced the Arab Spring did not blossom into fully fledged liberal secular countries right away.
Paradoxically, our disappointment does not make us rue setbacks on the path to democracy. Despite our alleged support for “democracy for all”, we are nonetheless too silent when the system we advocate is snuffed out by governments in power. This is indeed strange because we should have learned by now that propping up non-representative, and often brutal, states is wrong and does not ensure the security we demand in keeping with our national interests.
Within the context of the Arab Spring we are committing the same old mistake when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The Egyptian military has of course banned the movement and jailed its members, despite the awkward fact that Egyptians voted for the MB in 2012. Jordan also suspended its version of the party in April of this year.
There is little doubt that the MB’s tenure in government in Egypt was not considered a success. The party made significant mistakes and many thought the MB was going down a path of Islamist rule. While that may be true, the correct way to change governments is not to oust them using force but rather through the ballot box. The tired motto of “one man, one vote, one time” has often been used to describe Islamic political parties (i.e. once you vote them in they will not leave), although there was not a shred of evidence that the MB intended to do cancel future elections. Besides, if ineffective government were enough to call in the army there is not a democracy on this planet where such justification would be found wanting and we would have to create a new field of study called “coup of the week”.
I am dismayed that we do not learn from our history. In 1992 an Islamic party – the Front Islamique du Salut – was on the verge of winning national elections in Algeria when the military stepped in and cancelled the vote. The ensuing carnage that enveloped Algeria lasting a decade was one of the most brutal civil wars on record.
If we truly think that democracy is the best system of governance we have to date and that all peoples deserve to live under it, we cannot dictate the direction that democratic elections take. It is hypocritical for us to say “you can vote, but you can’t vote for someone we don’t like”. Local actors have a right to make their own decisions based on local conditions.
As in Algeria perhaps in Egypt. Frustrated MB members are pressing their leadership to get more active. You can imagine the anger of someone who was told to play the democracy game by the rules only to win but be then told that the rules had changed. It will not be surprising to see this anger lead to violence and even terrorism. Pundits will immediately state that this future violence offers proof that the MB is a terrorist organisation. Maybe, and it is true that the MB engaged in terrorism in the 1950s. But I think it is more accurate to say that it is the action of the Egyptian military and the inaction of the West that drives people with no better outlet to take up arms. So much for our self-proclaimed belief in “democracy for all”.