Tahrir Square, one of the symbolic centres of the ‘Arab Spring’, has played host to renewed mass protests as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians seek the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist-backed government.
The fact that Morsi, the democratically-elected successor of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, should be subjected to ‘democratic’ protests in Cairo is an irony not lost on many people. It is a reminder of the difficult transition between authoritarianism and democracy, a process that for many states took centuries rather than a matter of months.
Supporters of Morsi, and there remain many in Egypt, decry the latest protests as a sign of ‘sour grapes’ from a minority of the population whose favoured candidates did not win the 2012 presidential election. There is a point to this. In a democracy, one must be prepared to accept that one’s preferred candidate may not win and that to dispute the election of an unfavoured leader threatens the sanctity of a burgeoning democracy, particularly if the elections are considered to have been free and fair. There is no evidence that Morsi’s election was rigged or that significant irregularities or corruption were encountered.
Having said that, once elected as a democratic leader, that person must lead democratically. Morsi has not done this. Desperate to solidify his power base with agitated generals and Mubarak loyalists lurking in the upper echelons of many state institutions, Morsi set about trying to rule by decree, awarding himself emergency powers more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a democracy. His rule so far has not sought political inclusiveness and he has seldom engaged meaningfully with elected opposition MPs.
As Libya has also proved in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow, when a population is mobilised in such a militant fashion it is extremely difficult to implement quick and effective democratic reforms without some form of mass protest. In Libya the situation is exacerbated by the proliferation of rival militia groups unwilling to be coerced into the new democratic framework whilst remaining heavily armed.
Another example in recent history is Iraq, where the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein was followed by a ‘non-plan’ amongst the Allied forces to impose democracy in the country. The sectarian violence that today plagues Iraq to such devastating effect is a damning indictment on the American and British attempts to force democracy on a society used to dictatorial rule, ruthlessly-enforced secularism and endemic militarism.
Western Europe and its colonies in the Americas were the first nations to move towards democratisation. Such transitions took centuries. After King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, in which he conceded certain privileges to his subjects and constraints on his own authority, it would take another seven centuries of parliamentary development, political education and elite concessions before universal suffrage was introduced in the United Kingdom. Similar patterns of democratisation are evident in the histories of other European nations.
To think then that Arab states previously subjected to strict authoritarianism can become fully-functioning democracies overnight is naive. Yet, just as much as the people need to come to terms with their new democratic reality, elected leaders must ensure that they do all in their power to enshrine democratic principles within their political, economic and social institutions. Otherwise, the protests and violence will rumble on.